Scaling Etna: Earth Sciences and Field Research in Sicily

For those studying volcanos and similar natural phenomena, personal observation and data collection in the field are not only crucial aspects of research, but are frequently carried out in difficult conditions. Opportunities for field training can therefore be limited. In Eastern Sicily, students find unique study opportunities, which exist in few other places in the world. Here, one can safely observe a series of natural phenomena connected to volcanic activity, ranging from active volcanos to volcanic caves, rock formations, and gas emissions. Students of various disciplines explore the impact of these peculiar geological conditions on local agriculture and food production, Italian environmental policies, and the response of local businesses to the increasing popularity of nature tourism.

Taking advantage of such opportunities for field training is the goal of the Field Studies in Volcanology summer program developed by Accent in partnership with the University of California Education Abroad Program. During this two-month-long program, students from the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California explore volcanic activity through coursework and field research.

All students in the program enroll in a Volcanology course taught by Carmelo Ferlito, professor in the Department of Geology at the Università di Catania. This hands-on intensive course not only focuses on theory but includes a series of study trips to closely observe the phenomena studied in class. Only about one hour away from the Accent Sicily Center for Field Studies in Syracuse, Mount Etna features prominently in the program, as students hike up the mountain on three different occasions. Each visit focuses on markers of volcanic activity, including caves and rock formations.

Another important part of the program is the three-day study trip to the Aeolian islands, one of the main centers of volcanic activity in the Mediterranean. By moving from island to island, students observed diverse signs of geothermal activity. The main points of interest are the three active volcanos situated on the islands of Stromboli, Lipari, and Vulcano. Other interesting phenomena studied include the submarine vents of thermal water off the coast of Panarea and the ancient quarries of pumice (a soft volcanic rock) on Lipari.

Throughout these visits, students gather evidence for the research component of the program, a field methods course co-taught by professors Carmelo Ferlito and Filippo Greco, a researcher at the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV). By using specialized equipment provided by the INGV, students collect data in the field and then analyze them in small groups. Greco also leads students on a guided visit to the INGV facilities in Catania, where the organization constantly monitors seismic and volcanic activity across Italy.

In this specialized program, students have learning opportunities that would be impossible on campus as they take advantage of environmental conditions in Sicily to observe closely—and safely—the natural phenomena that they study in class, acquiring valuable field experience in their discipline.

Accent has extensive experience in designing fully-customized programs that meet each partner university’s learning goals. We collaborate with U.S. partners during the program design process to identify activities, visits, study trips, and other experiential learning activities to complement program learning goals.