Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The formation of Mount Etna as the consequence of slab rollback


Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, lies close to the subduction-related Aeolian magmatic arc but shows no trace of subducted material in its magmas. Mount Etna is also situated on continental crust yet shows oceanic basalt affinities1,2,3, with isotopic ratios of helium and carbon suggesting that it is fed by the same type of mantle source as are mid-ocean ridge basalts4,5. Here we propose that although this giant volcano is not subduction-related—in the sense that it is not part of the magmatic arc—its formation is strongly related to the nearby subduction process. Based on a three-dimensional model of the tectonic plates in this region, we propose that the voluminous melting under Mount Etna results from ‘suction’ of asthenospheric material from under the neighbouring African plate. Such lateral flow is expected when descending slabs migrate backwards in the mantle (rollback) leaving low-pressure regions behind6,7 them. This was previously identified at the northern end of the Tonga arc (southwest Pacific Ocean) where such flow feeds arc8 or backarc9 magmatism. Here we show that in the south Tyrrhenian subduction zone, slab rollback pulls asthenospheric material much farther along the plate contact, reaching the base of the crust in the forearc region. This explains the voluminous melting under Mount Etna and also the recent uplift of the forearc region (the Calabrian peninsula)10.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Map of the south Tyrrhenian subduction zone.
Figure 2: Three-dimensional sketch of the south Tyrrhenian subduction zone.
Figure 3: Cross-section parallel (AA′) and perpendicular (BB′) to the direction of subduction in the south Tyrrhenian subduction zone.


  1. Barberi,F. et al. Evolution of a section of the African-Europe plate boundary: paleomagnetic and volcanological evidence from Sicily. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 21, 269–276 (1974).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Condomines,M., Tanguy,J. C., Kieffer,G. & Allegre,C. J. Magmatic evolution of a volcano studied by 230Th 238U disequilibrium and trace elements systematics: The Etna case. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 46, 1397–1416 (1982).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Tanguy,J. C. Tholeiitic basalt magmatism of Mount Etna and its relations with alkaline series. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 66, 51–67 (1978).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Allard,P. et al. Mantle-derived helium and carbon in groundwater and gases of Mount Etna, Italy. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 148, 501–516 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Allard,P. et al. Eruptive and diffuse emissions of CO2 from Mount Etna. Nature 351, 387–391 (1991).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Nur,A., Dvorkin,J., Mavko,G. & Ben Avraham,Z. Speculations on the origin and fate of backarc basins. Ann. Geofis. 36, 155–163 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Dvorkin,J., Nur,A., Mavko,G. & Ben Avraham,Z. Narrow subducting slabs and the origin of backarc basins. Tectonophysics 227, 63–79 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Wendt,J. I., Regelous,M., Collerson,K. D. & Ewart,A. Evidence for a contribution from two mantle plumes to the island arc lavas from northern Tonga. Geology 25, 611–614 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Turner,S. & Howkesworth,C. Using geochemistry to map mantle flow beneath the Lau basin. Geology 26, 1019–1022 (1998).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gvirtzman,Z. & Nur,A. Plate detachment, asthenosphere upwelling, and topography across subduction zones. Geology 27, 563–566.

  11. Monaco,C., Tapponnier,P., Tortorici,L. & Gillot,P. Y. Late quaternary slip rates on the Acireale-Piedimonte normal fault and tectonic origin of Mt. Etna (Sicily). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 147, 125–139 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Frepoli,A., Selavagi,G., Chiarabba,C. & Amoto,A. State of stress in southern Tyrrhenian subduction zone from fault-plane solutions. Geophys. J. Int. 125, 879–891 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Lachenbruch,A. H. & Morgan,P. Continental extension, magmatism and elevation: Formal relations and rules of thumb. Tectonophysics 174, 39–62 (1990).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Jones,H. J., Unruh,J. R. & Sonder,L. J. The role of gravitational potential energy in active deformation in the southwestern United States. Nature 381, 37–41 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Steinmetz,L., Ferrucci,F., Hirn,C. A., Moreli,C. & Nicholich,R. A 550 km long Moho traverse in the Tyrrhenian Sea from O.B.S. recorded PN waves. Geophys. Res. Lett. 10, 428–431 (1983).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Scarascia,S., Lozej,A. & Cassinis,R. Crustal structures of the Ligurain, Tyrrhenian, and Ionian seas and adjacent onshore areas interpreted from wide-angle seismic profiles. Boll. Geofis. Teor. Applic. 36, 5–19 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Moreli,C. Current knowledge on the crustal properties of Italy. Ann. Geofis. 37, 1113–1130 (1997).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Gvirtzman,Z. & Nur,A. Residual topography, lithospheric structure and sunken slabs in the central Mediterranean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. (submitted).

  19. Kastens,K. et al. ODP Leg 107 in the Tyrrhenian Sea: Insight into passive and backarc basin evolution. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 100, 1140–1156 (1988).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Westaway,R. Quaternary uplift of south Italy. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 21741–21772 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Mazzuoli,R., Tortorici,L. & Ventura,G. Oblique rifting in Salina, Lipari, and Vulcano islands (Aeolian islands, southern Italy). Terra Nova 7, 444–452 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Isacks,B. L. & Barazangi,M. in Island Arcs, Deep Sea Trenches, and Backarc Basins (eds Talawani, M. and Pitman, W. C.) 99–114 (Maurice Ewing Ser. 1, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1977).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Bijwaad,H., Spakman,W. & Engdahl,E. R. Closing the gap between regional and global travel time tomography. J. Geophys. Res. 103, 30055–30078 (1998).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Carminati,E., Wortel,M. J. R., Spakman,W. & Sabadina,R. The role of slab detachment processes in the opening of the western-central Mediterranean basin: some geological and geophysical evidence. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 160, 651–665 (1998).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Mele,G. High frequency wave propagation from mantle earthquakes in the Tyrrhenian Sea: New constraints for the geometry of the south Tyrrhenian subduction zone. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 2877–2880 (1998).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Amato,A., Alessandrini,B., Cimini,G. B., Frepoli,A. & Selvaggi,G. Active and remnant subducted slabs beneath Italy: evidence from seismic tomography and seismicity. Ann. Geofis. 36, 201–214 (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Wortel,M. J. R. & Spakman,W. Structure and dynamics of subducted lithosphere in the Mediterranean region. Proc. Koninklijke Ned. Acad. Wetensch. 95, 325–347 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Spakman,W., van de Lee,S. & van der Hilst,R. Travel time tomography of the European-Mediterranean mantle down to 1400 km. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 79, 3–74 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zohar Gvirtzman.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gvirtzman, Z., Nur, A. The formation of Mount Etna as the consequence of slab rollback. Nature 401, 782–785 (1999).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing