Volcanoes destroy and volcanoes create. The catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, made clear the awesome destructive power of a volcano. Yet, over a time span longer than human memory and record, volcanoes have played a key role in forming and modifying the planet upon which we live. More than 80 percent of the Earth's surface - above and below sea level - is of volcanic origin. Gaseous emissions from volcanic vents over hundreds of millions of years formed the Earth's earliest oceans and atmosphere, which supplied the ingredients vital to evolve and sustain life. Over geologic eons, countless volcanic eruptions have produced mountains, plateaus, and plains, which subsequent erosion and weathering have sculpted into majestic landscapes and formed fertile soils.
Ironically, these volcanic soils and inviting terranes have attracted, and continue to attract, people to live on the flanks of volcanoes. Thus, as population density increases in regions of active or potentially active volcanoes, mankind must become increasingly aware of the hazards and learn not to "crowd" the volcanoes. People living in the shadow of volcanoes must live in harmony with them and expect, and should plan for, periodic violent unleashings of their pent-up energy.
Drawing of Mount Vesusvius erupting in A.D. 79
This set of web pages presents a generalized summary of the nature, workings, products, and hazards of the common types of volcanoes around the world, along with a brief introduction to the techniques of volcano monitoring and research.
On August 24, A.D. 79, Vesuvius Volcano suddenly exploded and destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Although Vesuvius had shown stirrings of life when a succession of earthquakes in A.D. 63 caused some damage, it had been literally quiet for hundreds of years and was considered "extinct." Its surface and crater were green and covered with vegetation, so the eruption was totally unexpected. Yet in a few hours, hot volcanic ash and dust buried the two cities so thoroughly that their ruins were not uncovered for nearly 1,700 years, when the discovery of an outer wall in 1748 started a period of modern archeology. Vesuvius has continued its activity intermittently ever since A.D 79 with numerous minor eruptions and several major eruptions occurring in 1631, 1794, 1872, 1906 and in 1944 in the midst of the Italian campaign of World War II.
Drawing of the Roman god Vulcan
In the United States on March 27, 1980, Mount St. Helens Volcano in the Cascade Range, southwestern Washington, reawakened after more than a century of dormancy and provided a dramatic and tragic reminder that there are active volcanoes in the "lower 48" States as well as in Hawaii and Alaska.The catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, and related mudflows and flooding caused significant loss of life (57 dead or missing) and property damage over $1.2 billion). Mount St. Helens is expected to remain intermittently active for months or years, possibly even decades.
The word volcano comes from the little island of Vulcano in the Mediterranean Sea off Sicily. Centuries ago, the people living in this area believed that Vulcano was the chimney of the forge of Vulcan - the blacksmith of the Roman gods. They thought that the hot lava fragments and clouds of dust erupting from Vulcano came from Vulcan's forge as he beat out thunderbolts for Jupiter, king of the gods, and weapons for Mars, the god of war. In Polynesia the people attributed eruptive activity to the beautiful but wrathful Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, whenever she was angry or spiteful. Today we know that volcanic eruptions are not supernatural but can be studied and interpreted by scientists.
The Nature of Volcanoes
Volcanoes are mountains but they are very different from other mountains; they are not formed by folding and crumpling or by uplift and erosion. Instead, volcanoes are built by the accumulation of their own eruptive products -- lava, bombs (crusted over ash flows, and tephra (airborne ash and dust). A volcano is most commonly a conical hill or mountain built around a vent that connects with reservoirs of molten rock below the surface of the Earth. The term volcano also refers to the opening or vent through which the molten rock and associated gases are expelled.
Fountaining lava and volcanic debris during the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii.
Driven by buoyancy and gas pressure the molten rock, which is lighter than the surrounding solid rock forces its way upward and may ultimately break though zones of weaknesses in the Earth's crust. If so, an eruption begins, and the molten rock may pour from the vent as non-explosive lava flows, or if may shoot violently into the air as dense clouds of lava fragments. Larger fragments fall back around the vent, and accumulations of fall-back fragments may move downslope as ash flows under the force of gravity. Some of the finer ejected materiaIs may be carried by the wind only to fall to the ground many miles away. The finest ash particles may be injected miles into the atmosphere and carried many times around the world by stratospheric winds before settling out.
Molten rock below the surface of the Earth that rises in volcanic vents is known as magma, but after it erupts from a volcano it is called lava. Originating many tens of miles beneath the ground, the ascending magma commonly contains some crystals, fragments of surrounding (unmelted) rocks, and dissolved gases, but it is primarily a liquid composed principally of oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium, titanium, and manganese. Magmas also contain many other chemical elements in trace quantities. Upon cooling, the liquid magma may precipitate crystals of various minerals until solidification is complete to form an igneous or magmatic rock.
An idealized diagram of a volcano in an oceanic environment (left) and in a continental environment (right).
The diagram shows that heat concentrated in the Earth's upper mantle raises temperatures sufficiently to melt the rock locally by fusing the materials with the lowest melting temperatures, resulting in small, isolated blobs of magma. These blobs then collect, rise through conduits and fractures, and some ultimately may re-collect in larger pockets or reservoirs ("holding tanks") a few miles beneath the Earth's surface. Mounting pressure within the reservoir may drive the magma further upward through structurally weak zones to erupt as lava at the surface. In a continental environment, magmas are generated in the Earth's crust as well as at varying depths in the upper mantle. The variety of molten rocks in the crust, plus the possibility of mixing with molten materials from the underlying mantle, leads to the production of magmas with widely different chemical compositions.
Two Polynesian terms are used to identify the surface character of Hawaiian lava flows. Aa, a basalt with a rough, blocky appearance, much like furnace slag, is shown at the top. Pahoehoe, a more fluid variety with a smooth, satiny and sometimes glassy appearance, is shown at the bottom.
If magmas cool rapidly, as might be expected near or on the Earth's surface, they solidify to form igneous rocks that are finely crystalline or glassy with few crystals. Accordingly, lavas, which of course are very rapidly cooled, form volcanic rocks typically characterized by a small percentage of crystals or fragments set in a matrix of glass (quenched or super-cooled magma) or finer grained crystalline materials. If magmas never breach the surface to erupt and remain deep underground, they cool much more slowly and thus allow ample time to sustain crystal precipitation and growth, resulting in the formation of coarser grained, nearly completely crystalline, igneous rocks. Subsequent to final crystallization and solidification, such rocks can be exhumed by erosion many thousands or millions of years later and be exposed as large bodies of so-called granitic rocks, as, for example, those spectacularly displayed in Yosemite National Park and other parts of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
Lava is red hot when it pours or blasts out of a vent but soon changes to dark red, gray, black, or some other color as it cools and solidifies. Very hot, gas-rich lava containing abundant iron and magnesium is fluid and flows like hot tar, whereas cooler, gas-poor lava high in silicon, sodium, and potassium flows sluggishly, like thick honey in some cases or in others like pasty, blocky masses.
During the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki, fountaining lava and volcanic debris completely blocked several of the roads in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
All magmas contain dissolved gases, and as they rise to the surface to erupt, the confining pressures are reduced and the dissolved gases are liberated either quietly or explosively. If the lava is a thin fluid (not viscous), the gases may escape easily. But if the lava is thick and pasty (highly viscous), the gases will not move freely but will build up tremendous pressure, and ultimately escape with explosive violence. Gases in lava may be compared with the gas in a bottle of a carbonated soft drink. If you put your thumb over the top of the bottle and shake it vigorously, the gas separates from the drink and forms bubbles. When you remove your thumb abruptly, there is a miniature explosion of gas and liquid. The gases in lava behave in somewhat the same way. Their sudden expansion causes the terrible explosions that throw out great masses of solid rock as well as lava, dust, and ashes.
The violent separation of gas from lava may produce rock froth called pumice. Some of this froth is so light - because of the many gas bubbles - that it floats on water. In many eruptions, the froth is shattered explosively into small fragments that are hurled high into the air in the form of volcanic cinders (red or black), volcanic ash (commonly tan or gray), and volcanic dust.
Lassen Volcanic National Park features roaring fumaroles, thumping mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming sulphur pits. These mountains are still growing - and they're doing it right in front of you! Learn More