By Tricia Severson
2nd hour Science
A volcano is a vent, or opening, in the surface of the Earth through which magma and
associated gases and ash erupt. The word also refers to the form or structure, usually
conical, produced by accumulations of erupted material. Volcanoes occur mainly near
plate tectonic boundaries and are especially common around the Pacific basin, called the
Pacific Ring of Fire (see Plate Tectonics).
Humanity has long been awed by this powerful force of nature. The Romans attributed
volcanic events to Vulcan, the god of fire and metalworking. In AD 79 the eruption of
Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Polynesians
believe volcanoes to be ruled by the fire goddess Pele. One of the most spectacular
volcanic eruptions in recorded history occurred in 1883 with the explosion of Krakatoa,
an island in the Sunda Strait near Java (see Krakatoa). A more recent example is the
dramatic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Range in Washington State.
Volcano Formation and Eruptions
Volcanic eruptions may be violent, even catastrophic, or relatively mild. The most
explosive eruptions are essentially blasts of steam that create spectacular displays.
Quieter fissure eruptions occur when molten rock pushes through long cracks in the
Earth’s crust and floods the surrounding landscape. Such repeated outpourings of lava can
fill surrounding valleys and bury low hills, creating thick lava sequences that eventually
become plateaus (see Plateau).
The origin of molten rock, referred to by geologists as magma, is not clearly
understood. About 80 percent of all magma is composed of basalt rock. Geophysical
research suggests that volcanic magma forms near the base of the Earth’s crust and moves
upward to a shallow magma chamber before erupting at the surface. Magmas rise
because they are less dense than the rocks at lower depths, and their heat probably
weakens surrounding rocks. The upward movement of magma may also be due to
expanding gases within the molten rock or to chemical reactions that dissolve rocks
above the magma. Volcanic material moves toward the surface through channelways, or
volcanic conduits, and is extruded through vents at the Earth’s surface. (See also Lava
Eruptions take different forms depending on the composition of the magma when it
reaches the surface. Sudden eruptions are often associated with low-viscosity (more
fluid) magma where the expanding gases form a froth that becomes a light, glassy rock
called pumice. In eruptions of high-viscosity (thicker) magmas, the gas pressure shatters
the rock into fragments. Pyroclastic rocks, formed by volcanic explosion, are named
according to size: volcanic ash if sand-sized or smaller, volcanic bombs if larger.
Consolidated ash is called tuff. Quieter, more passive eruptions release fluid basalt lava
from dikes or dike swarms (magma intrusions that cut across layers of rock). These
eruptions cover large areas and often produce ropy, or pahoehoe, lava flows. Thicker
basalt lava breaks into chunks or blocks, forming blocky lava flows, called aa.
The products of volcanism may be classified into two groups: lava and pyroclastics.
Lava is the fluid phase of volcanic activity. Pyroclastics (also called tephra) are
various-sized particles of hot debris thrown out of a volcano. Whether lava or
pyroclastics are being ejected, the eruption is normally accompanied by the expulsion of
water and gases, many of which are poisonous. Lava usually forms long, narrow rivers of
molten rock that flow down the slopes of a volcano.
Explosive eruptions tend to be spectacular events best observed from a safe distance.
Earthquakes, high columns of vapors, lightning, and strong whirlwinds often accompany
the explosions. The eruption of Krakatoa unleashed a tsunami, a large seismic sea wave,
that swept the coasts of Java and Sumatra and drowned more than 36,000 people. A
volcano can grow with frightening speed and often affects territory far beyond the area
on which the cone forms. When volcanoes are born in the sea, the eruptions may be more
violent than those on land because the contact between molten rock and seawater
Volcanoes also create craters and calderas. Craters are formed either by the massive
collapse of material during volcanic activity, by unusually violent explosions, or later by
erosion during dormancy. Calderas are large, basin-shaped depressions. Most of them are
formed after a magma chamber drains and no longer supports the overlying cone, which
then collapses inward to create the basin. One of the most famous examples is the
still-active Kilauea caldera in Hawaii.
Types of Volcanoes
Volcanoes are usually classified by shape and size. These are determined by such factors
as the volume and type of volcanic material ejected, the sequence and variety of
eruptions, and the environment. Among the most common types are shield volcanoes,
stratovolcanoes, and cinder cones.
Shield volcanoes have a low, broad profile created by highly fluid basalt flows that
spread over wide areas. The fluid basalt cannot build up a cone with sides much steeper
than 7 degrees. Over thousands of years, however, these cones can reach massive size.
The Hawaiian Islands are composed of shield volcanoes that have built up from the sea
floor to the surface some 3 miles (5 kilometers) above. Peaks such as Mauna Loa and
Mauna Kea rise to more than 13,600 feet (4,145 meters) above sea level. Hawaii is the
largest lava structure in the world, while Mauna Loa, if measured from the sea floor, is
the world’s largest mountain in terms of both height and volume.
Stratovolcanoes are the most common volcanic form. They are composed of alternating
layers of lava and pyroclastic material. When a quiet lava flow ends, it creates a seal of
solidified lava within the conduit of the volcano. Pressure gradually builds up below,
setting the stage for a violent blast of pyroclastic material. These alternating cycles repeat
themselves, giving stratovolcanoes a violent reputation.
A cinder cone is a conical hill of mostly cinder-sized pyroclastics. The profile of the
cone is determined by the angle of repose, that is, the steepest angle at which debris
remains stable and does not slide downhill. Larger cinder fragments, which fall near the
summit, can form slopes exceeding 30 degrees. Finer particles are carried farther from
the vent and form gentle slopes of about 10 degrees at the base of the cone. These
volcanoes tend to be explosive but may also extrude some lava. Cinder cones are
numerous, occur in all sizes, and tend to rise steeply above the surrounding area. Those
occurring on the flanks of larger volcanoes are called parasitic cones.
Volcanic activity typically alternates between short active periods and much longer
dormant periods. An extinct volcano is one that is not erupting and is not likely to erupt
in the future. A dormant volcano, while currently inactive, has erupted within historic
times and is likely to do so in the future. An inactive volcano is one that has not been
known to erupt within historic times. Such classification is arbitrary, however, since
almost any volcano is capable of erupting again.
In the late stages of volcanic activity, magma can heat circulating groundwater,
producing hot springs and geysers (see Geyser and Fumarole). A geyser is a hot-water
fountain that spouts intermittently with great force. One of the best-known examples is
Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Fumaroles are vents that emit gas fumes or
Volcanoes occur along belts of tension, where continental plates diverge, and along
belts of compression, where the plates converge. Styles of eruption and types of lava are
associated with different kinds of plate boundaries. Most lavas that issue from vents in
oceanic divergence zones and from midoceanic volcanoes are basaltic. Where ocean
plates collide, the rock types basalt and andesite predominate. Near the zone where an
ocean plate and continental margin converge, consolidated ash flows are found.
Nearly 1,900 volcanoes are active today or known to have been active in historical
times. Of these, almost 90 percent are situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire. This belt partly
coincides with the young mountain ranges of western North and South America, and the
volcanic island arcs fringing the north and western sides of the Pacific basin. The
Mediterranean-Asian orogenic belt has few volcanoes, except for Indonesia and the
Mediterranean where they are more numerous. Oceanic volcanoes are strung along the
world’s oceanic ridges, while the remaining active volcanoes are associated with the
African rift valleys.
Study of Volcanic Eruptions
Volcanology, a branch of geology, is the study of volcanoes and volcanic activity.
Although volcanoes are difficult to study because of the hazards involved, volcano
observatories have existed for decades.
Scientists observe active volcanoes to obtain information that might help predict the
timing and intensity of eruptions. Sensitive instruments detect changes in temperature,
chemical composition of emissions, Earth movements, magnetic fields, gravity, and other
physical properties of the volcano. Modern networks of seismographs provide
information on the internal structure and activity of volcanoes (see Earthquake). The
intensity, frequency, and location of earthquakes provide important clues to volcanic
activity, particularly impending eruptions. Movements of magma typically produce
numerous tremors, sometimes exceeding 1,000 per day. An almost continuous tremor
generally accompanies a lava outpouring. Tiltmeters (instruments that measure tilting of
the ground) help detect swelling and deflation of the volcano caused by the accumulation
and movement of magma. Researchers also monitor variations in the chemistry and
petrology of the lavas and the chemistry of emitted gases.
Volcanoes erupt in a wide variety of ways. Even a single volcano may go through
several eruption phases in one active period. Eruptions are classified according to the
geochemical composition and viscosity of the lavas, nature of the flows or ash release,
and associated phenomena. Magmatic eruptions are the most common, but the most
violent arise from steam explosions when the fiery magma reaches surface water, ice, or
Pelean eruptions, named after the 1902 eruption of Mount Pele on the Caribbean
island of Martinique, are characterized by incandescent flows of rock and pumice
fragments. The entrapment of high-temperature gases in these “glowing avalanches,”
known by the French term nue ardente, is associated with a particularly violent phase of
Eruptions of intermediate force are typified by Plinian eruptions, named after Pliny the
Elder, who witnessed the volcanic destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Plinian
eruptions are characterized by both the extrusion of high-viscosity lava flows and the
violent explosion of released gases that blast huge quantities of ash, cinders, bombs, and
blocks skyward. Volcanic mudflows, landslides, and lahars (flows of volcanic debris)
may also follow, particularly if the eruptions are accompanied by rainstorms.
Less violent Hawaiian and Strombolian-type eruptions are associated with fissures that
often produce a line of fire fountains. These geyserlike fountains of lava may shoot
several hundred feet into the air and form a nearly continuous curtain of fire. The basalt
lava is extremely fluid and flows down the mountain sides in torrents. When these
streams reach the sea, they form pillow lavas, lobes of stacked lava that resemble a pile
Volcanoes provide a wealth of natural resources. Emissions of volcanic rock, gas, and
steam are sources of important industrial materials and chemicals, such as pumice, boric
acid, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. In Iceland most of the homes in Reykjavk are
heated by hot water tapped from volcanic springs. Greenhouses heated in the same way
can provide fresh vegetables and tropical fruits to this subarctic island. Geothermal steam
is exploited as a source of energy for the production of electricity in Italy, New Zealand,
the United States, Mexico, Japan, and Russia. The scientific study of volcanoes provides
useful information on Earth processes.