A volcano on Earth is a vent or fissure in the planet's crust through which lava, ash, rock and gases erupt. A volcano is also a mountain formed by the accumulation of these eruptive products.
Volcanoes have existed for a long time on Earth, likely causing disasters such as the Permian mass extinction about 250 million years ago, the greatest mass extinction in Earth's history that wiped out 90% of marine life and 75% of terrestrial species, according to Seth D. Burgess and Samuel A. Bowring, authors of "High-precision geochronology confirms voluminous magmatism before, during, and after Earth’s most severe extinction," a 2015 paper in Science Advances (opens in new tab).
One of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history is that of Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 A.D., wiping out the town of Pompeii with volcanic ash, burying many of its inhabitants so that it had become an archaeological site of great significance ever since.
Volcanoes can and have existed on other worlds as well: although volcanoes on the moon and Mars have long been dormant, volcanoes are still very active on Jupiter's moon Io and have been identified on Mercury, Venus and another of Jupiter's moons, Europa, according to Arizona State University (opens in new tab). Researchers are currently striving to find ways to predict when volcanic eruptions might happen on Earth by analyzing clues such as crystals and gases linked with volcanoes.
Earth's crust is 3 to 37 miles (5 to 60 kilometers) thick, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). It is broken up into seven major and 152 smaller minor and micro pieces called tectonic plates, according to a 2016 paper by Christopher Harrison at the University of Miami (opens in new tab). The largest of these is the Pacific Plate at 39,768,522 square miles (103,000,000 square km), according to the California Earthquake Authority (opens in new tab).
These plates float on a layer of magma — semi-liquid rock and dissolved gases. At the boundaries of these plates — where they move past, are pushed under, or move away from each other — magma, which is lighter than the surrounding solid rock, is often able to force its way up through cracks and fissures. Magma can explode from the vent, or it can flow out of the volcano like an overflowing cup. Magma that has erupted is called lava.
Types of volcanoes
Cinder cone volcanoes (also called scoria cones) are the most common type of volcano, according to San Diego State University (opens in new tab), and are the symmetrical cone-shaped volcanoes we typically think of. They may occur as single volcanoes or as secondary volcanoes known as "parasitic cones" on the sides of stratovolcanoes or shield volcanoes. Airborne fragments of lava, called tephra, are ejected from a single vent.
The lava cools rapidly and fall as cinders that build up around the vent, forming a crater at the summit, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). Cinder cone volcanoes are fairly small, generally only about 300 feet (91 meters) tall and not rising more than 1,200 feet (366 m). They can build up over short periods of a few months or years.
Stratovolcanoes are also called composite volcanoes because they are built of layers of alternating lava flow, ash and blocks of unmelted stone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They are larger than cinder cones, rising up to 8,000 feet (2,438 m). Stratovolcanoes result from a conduit system of vents leading from a magma reservoir beneath the surface. When dormant, they typically have steep concave sides that sweep together at the top around a relatively small crater.
"Strato Volcanoes comprise the largest percentage (~60%) of the Earth's individual volcanoes and most are characterized by eruptions of andesite and dacite - lavas that are cooler and more viscous than basalt. These more viscous lavas allow gas pressures to build up to high levels (they are effective "plugs" in the plumbing), therefore these volcanoes often suffer explosive eruptions," according to Oregon State University (opens in new tab).
Stratovolcanoes can erupt with great violence. Pressure builds in the magma chamber as gases, under immense heat and pressure, are dissolved in the liquid rock. When the magma reaches the conduits the pressure is released and the gases explode, according to San Diego State University. Because they form in a system of underground conduits, stratovolcanoes may blow out the sides of the cone as well as the summit crater.
Stratovolcanoes are considered the most violent. Mount St. Helens, in Washington state, is a stratovolcano that erupted on May 18, 1980. Approximately 230 square miles (596 square km) of forest was completely obliterated and 57 people were killed. Over the course of the day, winds blew 520 million tons of ash eastward across the United States and caused complete darkness in Spokane, Washington, 250 miles (402 km) from the volcano, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab).
Shield volcanoes are huge, gently sloping volcanoes built of very thin lava spreading out in all directions from a central vent. They have wide bases several miles in diameter with steeper middle slopes and a flatter summit. The gentle convex slopes give them an outline like a medieval knight’s shield. Eruptions of these volcanoes are not generally explosive, but are more like liquid overflowing around the edges of a container.
The world's largest volcano, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, is a shield volcano, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). Mauna Loa is about 55,770 feet (17,000 m) from its base beneath the ocean to the summit, which is 13,681 feet (4,170 m) above sea level. It is also one of the Earth's most active volcanoes and is carefully monitored with regular updates posted by the National Park Service (opens in new tab). The most recent eruption was in 1984.
Lava domes are built up when the lava is too viscous to flow, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A bubble or plug of cooling rock forms over a fissure. This cooler, thick lava usually rises near the end of an explosive eruption and lava domes often form within the craters of stratovolcanoes. Mount St. Helens has several well-defined lava domes inside the crater, according to NASA (opens in new tab).
Other volcanic landforms
Besides well-known symmetrical volcanoes such as Mount Fuji in Japan and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, volcanic activity is responsible for several other distinctive landforms.
Calderas: A caldera is a bowl-shaped depression formed when a volcano collapses into the void left when its magma chamber is emptied. There are three types, according to San Diego State University (opens in new tab). The first type is a crater lake caldera. This is the result of a stratovolcano collapsing into its magma chamber during a violent eruption. Basaltic calderas have a concentric ring pattern resulting from a series of gradual collapses rather than a single event. They are often found at the summit of shield volcanoes such as the craters at the tops of Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Resurgent calderas are the largest volcanic structures on Earth. They are the result of catastrophic eruptions that dwarf any eruptions ever recorded by human beings.
One example is Crater Lake in Oregon. "Crater Lake, Oregon, is the namesake of this caldera type. With a water depth of 600 m, Crater Lake is the deepest fresh-water lake in North America. The caldera walls rise above the lake level an additional 600 m. This large depression formed from the violent eruption and collapse of the ancestral stratovolcano Mt. Mazama about 6850 years ago," according to San Diego State University.
Volcanic plugs: When magma solidifies in the fissure of a volcano the hard dense rock may form a "neck" that remains when softer surrounding rock has been eroded away, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). "Typically, volcanic plugs and necks tend to be more resistant to erosion than their enclosing rock formations," it states. This can result in dramatic landmarks such as Ship Rock in New Mexico, and Devil's Tower in Wyoming, famously used in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Tuff cones: also known as maars, tuff cones are shallow, flat-floored craters that scientists think formed as a result of a violent expansion of magmatic gas or steam, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Maars range in size from 200 to 6,500 feet (60 to 1,980 m) across and from 30 to 650 feet (9 to 198 m) deep, and most are commonly filled with water to form natural lakes. Maars occur in geologically young volcanic regions of the world such as the western United States and the Eifel region of Germany.
Lava plateaus: Shield volcanoes may erupt along lines of fissures rather than a central vent spilling liquid lava in successive layers. Over time these layers form broad plateaus such as the Columbia Plateau, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). These plateaus are often cut by deep canyons that expose the layers of rock.
Examples of this kind of formation can be found in Iceland, southeastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and southern Idaho.
Volcanoes in history
A.D. 79: One of the most famous volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which sits along the Bay of Naples in southern Italy. It has erupted dozens of times in the past 2,000 years, according to the Smithsonian Institute. The A.D. 79 eruption, which buried Pompeii, made Vesuvius famous, but another eruption in 1631 killed about 3,000 people and produced pyroclastic flows that reached the coast and caused massive amounts of damage.
1669: In Sicily, Mount Etna sent a river of lava flooding through Catania, according to Geology.com (opens in new tab), killing some 20,000 people there and in the surrounding region, according to NASA (opens in new tab).
1783: The eruption of Mount Skaptar in Iceland devastated farming and fishing, causing a famine that killed a quarter of the country's people, according to Oregon State University (opens in new tab).
1815: Whirlwinds and tsunamis from the eruption of Mount Tambora, on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, killed at least 10,000 people, according to Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab). The volcano sent a cloud ejecta into the atmosphere that was more than four times the amount ejected by Mount Pinatubo in 1991, leading to the "Year Without a Summer" of 1816 in Europe and North America, according to a 2016 paper in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (opens in new tab).
1883: Another Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, erupted in an explosion heard 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away. Seventy-pound boulders landed on islands 50 miles (80 km) away, and a 130-foot tsunami devastated hundreds of villages, including Java and Sumatra, according to San Diego State University. About 36,000 people died. Dust high in the atmosphere caused the moon to appear blue, and sometimes green, for two years, according to NASA (opens in new tab).
1902: Mount Pelée, on the island of Martinique, smothered the town of Saint-Pierre in deadly gas and hot ash, killing 29,933, according to the Los Angeles Times (opens in new tab).
1980: Mount St. Helens in Washington state blew 1,300 feet off its top, killing 57 people and causing a midday darkness in towns 85 miles (137 km) away.
1991: After 600 years of dormancy, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines rumbled for days before erupting and killing more than 840 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). The cataclysmic ejected more than 1 cubic mile (5 cubic km) of material and buried a U.S. air base 15 miles (24 km) away, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (opens in new tab). Nearly every bridge within 18 miles (30 km) of Mount Pinatubo was destroyed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (opens in new tab)
Pinatubo's cloud of sulfuric acid, some 20 million tons of it, climbed to more than 12 miles (19 km) in the stratosphere. Over the next several weeks, the cloud encircled the equator and spread to the poles, covering the entire planet. The particles reflected sunlight and cooled the Earth by nearly a full degree Fahrenheit.
Lassen Peak, California: Erupted between 1914 and 1917, causing no deaths, according to the National Park Service (opens in new tab). Lassen is considered one of the most likely in the Cascade Range to erupt again.
Long Valley, California: The Long Valley Caldera is a 10-by 20-mile (16-by-32 kilometer) depression in the Sierra Nevada Mountains caused by an eruption 700,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). A tremendous explosion spit out molten rock from 4 miles (6 km) under the surface; afterward, the whole mess settled more than a mile down into the depression where the magma had been.
Magma still feeds hot springs in the caldera. Earthquakes in 1980 marked the beginning of new activity that has included shifts in the position of hot springs and swarms of other small earthquakes. Geologists say it probably indicates that magma is again rising from below, and they suspect the area will erupt again.
Mount Shasta, California: Last known eruption was in 1786. It is believed to erupt every 600 to 800 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab). The mountain is significant as the incredibly dominant visual element in the Northern California landscape.
Kilauea and Mauna Loa, Hawaii: Each tends to erupt every two or three years; eruptions are non-explosive, allowing these two volcanoes to be among the most studied active volcanoes in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab) and the University of Hawaii (opens in new tab).
Additional resources and reading
If you think these stories of volcanoes were impressive then you should read about the 10 times volcanoes blew our minds in 2021.
And did you know that Mount Vesuvius didn't kill everyone in Pompeii? Find out what happened to the survivors.
- "High-precision geochronology confirms voluminous magmatism before, during, and after Earth’s most severe extinction" Science Advances (opens in new tab)
- "Volcanoes on Other Planets" Arizona State University (opens in new tab)
- "The Interior of the Earth" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Understanding Plate Tectonic Theory" California Earthquake Authority (opens in new tab)
- "Stratovolcanoes" Oregon State University (opens in new tab)
- "Mount St. Helens – From the 1980 Eruption to 2000" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Weekly Update" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Mauna Loa Volcano Eruption Update" National Park Service (opens in new tab)
- "Lava Dome on Mount St. Helens" NASA (opens in new tab)
- "How volcanoes work" San Diego State University (opens in new tab)
- "Other Volcanic Structures" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Principal Types of Volcanoes" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Mount Etna - Italy" Geology.com (opens in new tab)
- "Mount Etna Erupts" NASA (opens in new tab)
- "Laki, Iceland - 1783" Oregon State University (opens in new tab)
- "Blast from the Past" Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab)
- "Tambora 1815 as a test case for high impact volcanic eruptions: Earth system effects" Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change (opens in new tab)
- "Watch Out for the Blue Moon" NASA (opens in new tab)
- "The Cataclysmic 1991 Eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines" National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (opens in new tab)
- "Remembering Mount Pinatubo 25-years ago" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "The Eruption of Lassen Peak" National Park Service (opens in new tab)
- "Long Valley Caldera" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Mount Shasta: Hazards" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Kīlauea" U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab)
- "Mauna Loa volcano" University of Hawaii (opens in new tab)