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Cross-section through a stratovolcano (vertical scale is exaggerated):
1. Large magma chamber

2. Bedrock

3. Conduit (pipe)

4. Base

5. Sill

6. Dike

7. Layers of ash emitted by the volcano

8. Flank
9. Layers of lava emitted by the volcano

10. Throat

11. Parasitic cone

12. Lava flow

13. Vent

14. Crater

15. Ash cloud

A volcano is an opening, or rupture, in a planet's surface or crust, which allows hot magma, ash and gases to escape from below the surface. The word volcano is derived from the name of Vulcanomarker island off Sicily which in turn, was named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

Volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. A mid-oceanic ridge, for example the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has examples of volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has examples of volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates coming together. By contrast, volcanoes are usually not created where two tectonic plates slide past one another. Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the Earth's crust (called "non-hotspot intraplate volcanism"), such as in the African Rift Valley, the Wells Gray-Clearwater volcanic fieldmarker and the Rio Grande Rift in North America and the European Rhine Graben with its Eifel volcanoes.

Volcanoes can be caused by mantle plumes. These so-called hotspots, for example at Hawaiimarker, can occur far from plate boundaries. Hotspot volcanoes are also found elsewhere in the solar system, especially on rocky planets and moons.

Plate tectonics and hotspots

Divergent plate boundaries

At the mid-oceanic ridges, two tectonic plates diverge from one another. New oceanic crust is being formed by hot molten rock slowly cooling and solidifying. The crust is very thin at mid-oceanic ridges due to the pull of the tectonic plates. The release of pressure due to the thinning of the crust leads to adiabatic expansion, and the partial melting of the mantle causing volcanism and creating new oceanic crust. Most divergent plate boundaries are at the bottom of the oceans, therefore most volcanic activity is submarine, forming new seafloor. Black smokers or deep sea vents are an example of this kind of volcanic activity. Where the mid-oceanic ridge is above sea-level, volcanic islands are formed, for example, Icelandmarker.

Convergent plate boundaries

Subduction zones are places where two plates, usually an oceanic plate and a continental plate, collide. In this case, the oceanic plate subducts, or submerges under the continental plate forming a deep ocean trench just offshore. Water released from the subducting plate lowers the melting temperature of the overlying mantle wedge, creating magma. This magma tends to be very viscous due to its high silica content, so often does not reach the surface and cools at depth. When it does reach the surface, a volcano is formed. Typical examples for this kind of volcano are Mount Etnamarker and the volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.


Hotspots are not usually located on the ridges of tectonic plates, but above mantle plumes, where the convection of the Earth's mantle creates a column of hot material that rises until it reaches the crust, which tends to be thinner than in other areas of the Earth. The temperature of the plume causes the crust to melt and form pipes, which can vent magma. Because the tectonic plates move whereas the mantle plume remains in the same place, each volcano becomes dormant after a while and a new volcano is then formed as the plate shifts over the hotspot. The Hawaiian Islands are thought to be formed in such a manner, as well as the Snake River Plain, with the Yellowstone Calderamarker being the part of the North American plate currently above the hot spot.

Volcanic features

The most common perception of a volcano is of a conical mountain, spewing lava and poisonous gases from a crater at its summit. This describes just one of many types of volcano, and the features of volcanoes are much more complicated. The structure and behavior of volcanoes depends on a number of factors. Some volcanoes have rugged peaks formed by lava domes rather than a summit crater, whereas others present landscape features such as massive plateaus. Vents that issue volcanic material (lava, which is what magma is called once it has escaped to the surface, and ash) and gases (mainly steam and magmatic gases) can be located anywhere on the landform. Many of these vents give rise to smaller cones such as Pu u Ō ōmarker on a flank of Hawaiimarker's Kīlaueamarker.

Other types of volcano include cryovolcanoes (or ice volcanoes), particularly on some moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune; and mud volcanoes, which are formations often not associated with known magmatic activity. Active mud volcanoes tend to involve temperatures much lower than those of igneous volcanoes, except when a mud volcano is actually a vent of an igneous volcano.

Fissure vents

Volcanic fissure vents are flat, linear cracks through which lava emerges.

Shield volcanoes

Shield volcanoes, so named for their broad, shield-like profiles, are formed by the eruption of low-viscosity lava that can flow a great distance from a vent, but not generally explode catastrophically. Since low-viscosity magma is typically low in silica, shield volcanoes are more common in oceanic than continental settings. The Hawaiianmarker volcanic chain is a series of shield cones, and they are common in Icelandmarker, as well.

Lava domes

Lava domes are built by slow eruptions of highly viscous lavas. They are sometimes formed within the crater of a previous volcanic eruption (as in Mount Saint Helensmarker), but can also form independently, as in the case of Lassen Peakmarker. Like stratovolcanoes, they can produce violent, explosive eruptions, but their lavas generally do not flow far from the originating vent.


Cryptodomes are formed when viscous lava forces its way up and causes a bulge. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helensmarker was an example. Lava was under great pressure and forced a bulge in the mountain, which was unstable and slid down the North side.

Volcanic cones (cinder cones)

Volcanic cones or cinder cones are the result from eruptions that erupt mostly small pieces of scoria and pyroclastics (both resemble cinders, hence the name of this volcano type) that build up around the vent. These can be relatively short-lived eruptions that produce a cone-shaped hill perhaps 30 to 400 meters high. Most cinder cones erupt only once. Cinder cones may form as flank vents on larger volcanoes, or occur on their own. Parícutinmarker in Mexicomarker and Sunset Cratermarker in Arizonamarker are examples of cinder cones. In New Mexicomarker, Caja del Rio is a volcanic field of over 60 cinder cones.

Stratovolcanoes (composite volcanoes)

Stratovolcanoes or composite volcanoes are tall conical mountains composed of lava flows and other ejecta in alternate layers, the strata that give rise to the name. Stratovolcanoes are also known as composite volcanoes, created from several structures during different kinds of eruptions. Strato/composite volcanoes are made of cinders, ash and lava. Cinders and ash pile on top of each other, lava flows on top of the ash, where it cools and hardens, and then the process begins again. Classic examples include Mt.marker Fujimarker in Japan, Mayon Volcanomarker in the Philippines, and Mount Vesuviusmarker and Strombolimarker in Italy. In recorded history, explosive eruptions by stratovolcanoes have posed the greatest hazard to civilizations.


A supervolcano is a large volcano that usually has a large caldera and can potentially produce devastation on an enormous, sometimes continental, scale. Such eruptions would be able to cause severe cooling of global temperatures for many years afterwards because of the huge volumes of sulfur and ash erupted. They are the most dangerous type of volcano. Examples include Yellowstone Calderamarker in Yellowstone National Parkmarker and Valles Calderamarker in New Mexicomarker (both western United States), Lake Taupomarker in New Zealandmarker and Lake Tobamarker in Sumatramarker, Indonesiamarker. Supervolcanoes are hard to identify centuries later, given the enormous areas they cover. Large igneous provinces are also considered supervolcanoes because of the vast amount of basalt lava erupted, but are non-explosive.

Submarine volcanoes

Submarine volcanoes are common features on the ocean floor. Some are active and, in shallow water, disclose their presence by blasting steam and rocky debris high above the surface of the sea. Many others lie at such great depths that the tremendous weight of the water above them prevents the explosive release of steam and gases, although they can be detected by hydrophones and discoloration of water because of volcanic gases. Pumice rafts may also appear. Even large submarine eruptions may not disturb the ocean surface. Because of the rapid cooling effect of water as compared to air, and increased buoyancy, submarine volcanoes often form rather steep pillars over their volcanic vents as compared to above-surface volcanoes. They may become so large that they break the ocean surface as new islands. Pillow lava is a common eruptive product of submarine volcanoes. Hydrothermal vents are common near these volcanoes, and some support peculiar ecosystems based on dissolved minerals.

Subglacial volcanoes

Subglacial volcanoes develop underneath icecaps. They are made up of flat lava which flows at the top of extensive pillow lavas and palagonite. When the icecap melts, the lavas on the top collapse leaving a flat-topped mountain. Then, the pillow lavas also collapse, giving an angle of 37.5 degrees . These volcanoes are also called table mountains, tuyas or (uncommonly) mobergs. Very good examples of this type of volcano can be seen in Iceland, however, there are also tuyas in British Columbiamarker. The origin of the term comes from Tuya Buttemarker, which is one of the several tuyas in the area of the Tuya River and Tuya Range in northern British Columbia. Tuya Butte was the first such landform analyzed and so its name has entered the geological literature for this kind of volcanic formation. The Tuya Mountains Provincial Park was recently established to protect this unusual landscape, which lies north of Tuya Lakemarker and south of the Jennings Rivermarker near the boundary with the Yukon Territorymarker.

Mud volcanoes

Mud volcanoes or mud domes are formations created by geo-excreted liquids and gases, although there are several different processes which may cause such activity. The largest structures are 10 kilometers in diameter and reach 700 meters high.

Erupted material

Lava composition

Another way of classifying volcanoes is by the composition of material erupted (lava), since this affects the shape of the volcano. Lava can be broadly classified into 4 different compositions (Cas & Wright, 1987):
  • If the erupted magma contains a high percentage (>63%) of silica, the lava is called felsic.
    • Felsic lavas (dacites or rhyolites) tend to be highly viscous (not very fluid) and are erupted as domes or short, stubby flows. Viscous lavas tend to form stratovolcanoes or lava domes. Lassen Peakmarker in Californiamarker is an example of a volcano formed from felsic lava and is actually a large lava dome.
    • Because siliceous magmas are so viscous, they tend to trap volatiles (gases) that are present, which cause the magma to erupt catastrophically, eventually forming stratovolcanoes. Pyroclastic flows (ignimbrites) are highly hazardous products of such volcanoes, since they are composed of molten volcanic ash too heavy to go up into the atmosphere, so they hug the volcano's slopes and travel far from their vents during large eruptions. Temperatures as high as 1,200 °C are known to occur in pyroclastic flows, which will incinerate everything flammable in their path and thick layers of hot pyroclastic flow deposits can be laid down, often up to many meters thick. Alaskamarker's Valley of Ten Thousand Smokesmarker, formed by the eruption of Novaruptamarker near Katmai in 1912, is an example of a thick pyroclastic flow or ignimbrite deposit. Volcanic ash that is light enough to be erupted high into the Earth's atmosphere may travel many kilometres before it falls back to ground as a tuff.
  • If the erupted magma contains 52–63% silica, the lava is of intermediate composition.
    • These "andesitic" volcanoes generally only occur above subduction zones (e.g. Mount Merapimarker in Indonesiamarker).
    • Andesitic lava is typically formed at convergent boundary margins of tectonic plates, by several processes:
      • Hydration melting of peridotite and fractional crystallization
      • Melting of subducted slab containing sediments
      • Magma mixing between felsic rhyolitic and mafic basaltic magmas in an intermediate reservoir prior to emplacement or lava flow.
  • If the erupted magma contains <52% and="">45% silica, the lava is called mafic (because it contains higher percentages of magnesium (Mg) and iron (Fe)) or basaltic.</52%> <52% and="">These lavas are usually much less viscous than rhyolitic lavas, depending on their eruption temperature; they also tend to be hotter than felsic lavas.</52%> <52% and="">Mafic lavas occur in a wide range of settings:</52%>
  • Some erupted magmas contain <=45% silica="" and="" produce="" ultramafic lava. Ultramafic flows, also known as komatiites, are very rare; indeed, very few have been erupted at the Earth's surface since the Proterozoic, when the planet's heat flow was higher. They are (or were) the hottest lavas, and probably more fluid than common mafic lavas.

Lava texture

Two types of lava are named according to the surface texture: A a ( ) and pāhoehoe ( ), both words having Hawaiian origins. A a is characterized by a rough, clinkery surface and is the typical texture of viscous lava flows. However, even basaltic or mafic flows can be erupted as a a flows, particularly if the eruption rate is high and the slope is steep.

Pāhoehoe is characterized by its smooth and often ropey or wrinkly surface and is generally formed from more fluid lava flows. Usually, only mafic flows will erupt as pāhoehoe, since they often erupt at higher temperatures or have the proper chemical make-up to allow them to flow with greater fluidity.

Volcanic activity

Scientific classification of volcanoes

Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology provides a scientific classification system for volcanoes.

Active- Eruption in historic times- Historical record - 500 years- C14 dating - 10,000 years- Local seismic activity- Oral / folkloric history

Potentially Active- Solfataras / Fumaroles- Geologically young (possibly erupted 10,000 years and for calderas and large systems - possibly 25,000 years).- Young-looking geomorphology (thin soil cover/sparse vegetation; low degree of erosion and dissection; young vent featuresl; +/- vegetation cover).- Suspected seismic activity.- Documented local ground deformation- Geochemical indicators of magmatic involvement.- Geophysical proof of magma bodies.- Strong connection with subduction zones and external tectonic settings.

InactiveNo record of eruption and its form is beginning to change by the agents of weathering anderosion via formation of deep and long gullies.

Popular classification of volcanoes


A popular way of classifying magmatic volcanoes is by their frequency of eruption, with those that erupt regularly called active, those that have erupted in historical times but are now quiet called dormant, and those that have not erupted in historical times called extinct. However, these popular classifications—extinct in particular—are practically meaningless to scientists. They use classifications which refer to a particular volcano's formative and eruptive processes and resulting shapes, which was explained above.

There is no real consensus among volcanologists on how to define an "active" volcano. The lifespan of a volcano can vary from months to several million years, making such a distinction sometimes meaningless when compared to the lifespans of humans or even civilizations. For example, many of Earth's volcanoes have erupted dozens of times in the past few thousand years but are not currently showing signs of eruption. Given the long lifespan of such volcanoes, they are very active. By human lifespans, however, they are not.

Scientists usually consider a volcano to be erupting or likely to erupt if it is currently erupting, or showing signs of unrest such as unusual earthquake activity or significant new gas emissions. Most scientists consider a volcano active if it has erupted in holocene times. Historic times is another timeframe for active. But it is important to note that the span of recorded history differs from region to region. In Chinamarker and the Mediterraneanmarker, recorded history reaches back more than 3,000 years but in the Pacific Northwest of the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, it reaches back less than 300 years, and in Hawaiimarker and New Zealandmarker, only around 200 years. The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program's definition of active is having erupted within the last 10,000 years (the 'holocene' period).


Extinct volcanoes are those that scientists consider unlikely to erupt again, because the volcano no longer has a lava supply. Examples of extinct volcanoes are many volcanoes on the Hawaiian Islands in the U.S. (extinct because the Hawaii hotspotmarker is centered near the Big Island), and Paricutinmarker, which is monogenetic. Otherwise, whether a volcano is truly extinct is often difficult to determine. Since "supervolcano" calderas can have eruptive lifespans sometimes measured in millions of years, a caldera that has not produced an eruption in tens of thousands of years is likely to be considered dormant instead of extinct. For example, the Yellowstone Calderamarker in Yellowstone National Parkmarker is at least 2 million years old and hasn't erupted violently for approximately 640,000 years, although there has been some minor activity relatively recently, with hydrothermal eruptions less than 10,000 years ago and lava flows about 70,000 years ago. For this reason, scientists do not consider the Yellowstone Caldera extinct. In fact, because the caldera has frequent earthquakes, a very active geothermal system (i.e. the entirety of the geothermal activity found in Yellowstone National Park), and rapid rates of ground uplift, many scientists consider it to be an active volcano.


It is difficult to distinguish an extinct volcano from a dormant one. Volcanoes are often considered to be extinct if there are no written records of its activity. Nevertheless volcanoes may remain dormant for a long period of time, and it is not uncommon for a so-called "extinct" volcano to erupt again. Vesuviusmarker was thought to be extinct before its famous eruption of AD 79, which destroyed the towns of Herculaneummarker and Pompeiimarker. More recently, the long-dormant Soufrière Hillsmarker volcano on the island of Montserratmarker was thought to be extinct before activity resumed in 1995. Another recent example is Fourpeaked Mountainmarker in Alaskamarker, which, prior to its eruption in September 2006, had not erupted since before 8000 BC and was long thought to be extinct.

Notable volcanoes

The 16 current Decade Volcanoes are:

Effects of volcanoes

Volcanic "injection"
Solar radiation reduction from volcanic eruptions
Sulfur dioxide emissions by volcanoes.

There are many different types of volcanic eruptionsand associated activity: phreatic eruptions(steam-generated eruptions), explosive eruption of high-silicalava(e.g., rhyolite), effusive eruption of low-silica lava (e.g., basalt), pyroclastic flows, lahars(debris flow) and carbon dioxideemission. All of these activities can pose a hazard to humans. Earthquakes, hot springs, fumaroles, mud potsand geysersoften accompany volcanic activity.

The concentrations of different volcanic gasescan vary considerably from one volcano to the next. Water vaporis typically the most abundant volcanic gas, followed by carbon dioxideand sulfur dioxide. Other principal volcanic gases include hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride. A large number of minor and trace gases are also found in volcanic emissions, for example hydrogen, carbon monoxide, halocarbons, organic compounds, and volatile metal chlorides.

Large, explosive volcanic eruptions inject water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen chloride (HCl), hydrogen fluoride (HF) and ash (pulverized rock and pumice) into the stratosphereto heights of 16–32 kilometres (10–20 mi) above the Earth's surface. The most significant impacts from these injections come from the conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid(H2SO4), which condenses rapidly in the stratosphere to form fine sulfateaerosols. The aerosols increase the Earth's albedo—its reflection of radiation from the Sunback into space - and thus cool the Earth's lower atmosphere or troposphere; however, they also absorb heat radiated up from the Earth, thereby warming the stratosphere. Several eruptions during the past century have caused a decline in the average temperature at the Earth's surface of up to half a degree (Fahrenheit scale) for periods of one to three years — sulfur dioxide from the eruption of Huaynaputinamarker probably caused the Russian famine of 1601 - 1603.The sulfate aerosols also promote complex chemicalreactions on their surfaces that alter chlorine and nitrogenchemical species in the stratosphere. This effect, together with increased stratospheric chlorinelevels from chlorofluorocarbonpollution, generates chlorine monoxide (ClO), which destroys ozone(O3). As the aerosols grow and coagulate, they settle down into the upper troposphere where they serve as nuclei for cirrus cloudsand further modify the Earth's radiationbalance. Most of the hydrogen chloride (HCl) and hydrogen fluoride (HF) are dissolved in water droplets in the eruption cloud and quickly fall to the ground as acid rain. The injected ash also falls rapidly from the stratosphere; most of it is removed within several days to a few weeks. Finally, explosive volcanic eruptions release the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and thus provide a deep source of carbonfor biogeochemical cycles.
Gas emissions from volcanoes are a natural contributor to acid rain. Volcanic activity releases about 130 to 230 teragrams(145 million to 255 million short tons) of carbon dioxideeach year. Volcanic eruptions may inject aerosolsinto the Earth's atmosphere. Large injections may cause visual effects such as unusually colorful sunsets and affect global climatemainly by cooling it. Volcanic eruptions also provide the benefit of adding nutrients to soilthrough the weatheringprocess of volcanic rocks. These fertile soils assist the growth of plants and various crops. Volcanic eruptions can also create new islands, as the magma cools and solidifies upon contact with the water.

Volcanoes on other planetary bodies

The Earth's Moonhas no large volcanoes and no current volcanic activity, although recent evidence suggests it may still possess a partially molten core. However, the Moon does have many volcanic features such as maria(the darker patches seen on the moon), rillesand domes.

The planet Venushas a surface that is 90% basalt, indicating that volcanism played a major role in shaping its surface. The planet may have had a major global resurfacing event about 500 million years ago, from what scientists can tell from the density of impact craters on the surface. Lava flows are widespread and forms of volcanism not present on Earth occur as well. Changes in the planet's atmosphere and observations of lightning, have been attributed to ongoing volcanic eruptions, although there is no confirmation of whether or not Venus is still volcanically active. However, radar sounding by the Magellan probe revealed evidence for comparatively recent volcanic activity at Venus's highest volcano Maat Mons, in the form of ash flows near the summit and on the northern flank.

There are several extinct volcanoes on Mars, four of which are vast shield volcanoes far bigger than any on Earth. They include Arsia Monsmarker, Ascraeus Monsmarker, Hecates Tholusmarker, Olympus Monsmarker, and Pavonis Monsmarker.These volcanoes have been extinct for many millions of years, but the European Mars Expressspacecraft has found evidence that volcanic activity may have occurred on Mars in the recent past as well.

Jupiter's moonIois the most volcanically active object in the solar system because of tidalinteraction with Jupiter. It is covered with volcanoes that erupt sulfur, sulfur dioxideand silicaterock, and as a result, Iois constantly being resurfaced. Its lavas are the hottest known anywhere in the solar system, with temperatures exceeding 1,800 K (1,500 °C). In February 2001, the largest recorded volcanic eruptions in the solar system occurred on Io. Europa, the smallest of Jupiter's Galilean moons, also appears to have an active volcanic system, except that its volcanic activity is entirely in the form of water, which freezes into ice on the frigid surface. This process is known as cryovolcanism, and is apparently most common on the moons of the outer planets of the solar system.

In 1989 the Voyager 2spacecraft observed cryovolcanoes(ice volcanoes) on Triton, a moonof Neptune, and in 2005 the Cassini-Huygensprobe photographed fountains of frozen particles erupting from Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. The ejecta may be composed of water, liquid nitrogen, dust, or methanecompounds. Cassini-Huygens also found evidence of a methane-spewing cryovolcano on the Saturnianmoon Titan, which is believed to be a significant source of the methane found in its atmosphere. It is theorized that cryovolcanism may also be present on the Kuiper Belt ObjectQuaoar.


The word volcano is thought to derive from Vulcanomarker, a volcanic island in the Aeolian Islandsmarker of Italy whose name in turn originates from Vulcan, the name of a god of fire in Roman mythology.The study of volcanoes is called volcanology, sometimes spelled vulcanology.

In culture

Past beliefs

Many ancient accounts ascribe volcanic eruptions to supernaturalcauses, such as the actions of godor demigods. To the ancient Greeks, volcanoes' capricious power could only be explained as acts of the gods, while 16th/17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler believed they were ducts for the Earth's tears. One early idea counter to this was proposed by Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), who witnessed eruptions of Mount Etnamarker and Strombolimarker, then visited the crater of Vesuviusmarker and published his view of an Earth with a central fire connected to numerous others caused by the burning of sulfur, bitumen and coal.

Various explanations were proposed for volcano behavior before the modern understanding of the Earth's mantlestructure as a semisolid material was developed. For decades after awareness that compression and radioactivematerials may be heat sources, their contributions were specifically discounted. Volcanic action was often attributed to chemicalreactions and a thin layer of molten rock near the surface.


See also


Specific locations


Further reading

  • Macdonald, Gordon A., and Agatin T. Abbott. (1970). Volcanoes in the Sea. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 441 p.
  • Ollier, Cliff. (1988). Volcanoes. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, UK, ISBN 0-631-15664-X (hardback), ISBN 0-631-15977-0 (paperback).
  • Haraldur Sigurðsson, ed. (1999) Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-643140-X. This is a reference aimed at geologists, but many articles are accessible to non-professionals.
  • Cas, R.A.F. and J.V. Wright, 1987. Volcanic Successions. Unwin Hyman Inc. 528p. ISBN 0-04-552022-4


  1. [1]
  2. Exceptionally Bright Eruption on lo Rivals Largest in Solar System, Nov. 13, 2002
  3. PPARC, Cassini Finds an Atmosphere on Saturn's Moon Enceladus
  4. NewScientist, Hydrocarbon volcano discovered on Titan, June 8, 2005

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