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Definition: volcano from Dictionary of Energy

Earth Science. 1. a vent or fissure in the earth’s surface through which magma and its associated materials are expelled. 2. the large, generally conical structure formed by an accumulation of such expelled material. [From Vulcan. the ancient Roman god of fire, especially destructive fire.]

Summary Article: volcano
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

vents or fissures in the earth's crust through which gases, molten rock, or lava, and solid fragments are discharged. Their study is called volcanology. The term volcano is commonly applied both to the vent and to the conical mountain (cone) built up around the vent by the erupted rock materials. Volcanoes are described as active, dormant, or extinct. The soil resulting from decomposition of volcanic materials is extremely fertile, and the ash itself is a good polishing and cleansing agent.


Volcanoes are found in association with midocean ridge systems (see seafloor spreading) and along convergent plate boundaries, such as around the Pacific Ocean's “Ring of Fire” (see plate tectonics), the ring of plate boundaries associated with volcanic island arcs and ocean trenches surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Continental volcanoes are also associated with converging plate boundaries, such as the volcanoes of the Cascade Range along the W coast of the United States. Isolated volcanoes also form in the midocean area of the Pacific apparently unrelated to crustal plate boundaries. These sea mounts and volcanic island chains, such as the Hawaiian chain, may form from magma plumes, called hot spots, that are believed to rise from the core-mantle boundary. An example of a continental hot spot is found at Yellowstone National Park, though the source of its magma may be from an ancient subducted tectonic plate.

Volcanic Cones and Craters

Shapes of volcanoes include composite cones, or stratovolcanoes, with steep concave sides such as Mt. St. Helens in the W United States; shield cones have gentle slopes and can be relatively large such as the Hawaiian Islands; and cinder cones as Parícutin in Mexico, with steep slopes made of cinderlike materials. Explosive eruptions build up steep-sided cones, while the nonexplosive ones usually form broad, low lava cones. Cones range in height from a few feet to nearly 30,000 ft (9 km) above their base. Usually the cone has as its apex a cavity, or crater, which contains the mouth of the vent. Such craters are typically less than 1 mi (1.6 km) across, but larger craters, called calderas, ranging in diameter from 3 mi to—in a few instances—50 mi (5–80 km), are formed by particularly large eruptions, which are driven in part the collapse that creates the caldera (see crater).

Volcanic Eruptions

More than 500 volcanoes are known to have erupted on the earth's surface since historic times, and many more have erupted on the ocean floor unobserved by humans. Fifty volcanoes have erupted in the United States, which ranks third, behind Indonesia and Japan, in the number of historically active volcanoes. Of the world's active volcanoes, more than half are found around the perimeter of the Pacific, about a third on midoceanic islands and in an arc along the south of the Indonesian islands, and about a tenth in the Mediterranean area, Africa, and Asia Minor.

Evidence of extraterrestrial volcanic activity also has been found. Space probes have detected the remnants of ancient eruptions on earth's moon, Mars (which has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, 340 mi/550 km across and 15 mi/24 km high), and Mercury; these probably originated billions of years ago, since these bodies are no longer capable of volcanic activity. Triton (a satellite of Neptune), Io (a satellite of Jupiter), and Venus are known to be volcanically active. The volcanic processes that occur in the outer portion of the solar system are very different from those in the inner part. Eruptions on earth, Venus, Mercury, and Mars are of rocky material and are driven by internal heat. Io's eruptions are probably sulfur or sulfur compounds driven by tidal interactions with Jupiter. Triton's eruptions are of very volatile compounds, such as methane or nitrogen, driven by seasonal heating from the sun, and there are apparently volcanoes on Pluto that erupt ice consisting of water and nitrogen, ammonia, or methane, possibly driven by heat from radioactive decay in the dwarf planet's core.

Terrestrial volcanic eruptions may take one or more of five chief forms, or phases, known as Hawaiian, Strombolian, Vulcanian, Peleean, and Plinian. In the Hawaiian phase there is a relatively quiet effusion of basaltic lava unaccompanied by explosions or the ejection of fragments; the eruptions of Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii are typical. The Strombolian phase derives its name from the volcano Stromboli in the Lipari, or Aeolian, Islands, N of Sicily. It applies to continuous but mild discharges in which viscous lava is emitted in recurring explosions; the ejection of incandescent material produces luminous clouds. A more explosive volcanic eruption is the Vulcanian, where the magma (lava before emission) accumulates in the upper level of the vent but is blocked by a hardened plug of lava that forms between consecutive explosions. When the explosive gases have reached a critical pressure within the volcano, masses of solid and liquid rock erupt into the air and clouds of vapor form over the crater. The Peleean, derived from Mt. Pelée, is more violent, emitting fine ash; hot, gas-charged fragments of lava; and a characteristic superheated pyroclastic flow that travels downhill at great speed. Plinian, or Vesuvian eruptions, derives its name from Pliny the Younger, who described the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The Plinian eruption is similar to Strombolian and Vulcanian eruptions with significant ash and pumice and pyroclastic flows, but it also produces a characteristic massive, sustained eruptive column of hot ash that can reach 28 mi (45 km) in height.

Eruptions are often accompanied by torrential rains caused by the condensation of steam. The erupted fragments vary in size, including minute particles of volcanic dust and ash, lapilli (cinders or pellets), bombs (rounded or ellipsoidal masses of hardened magma), and huge masses called blocks. Minute dust and ash and aerosols carried high into the earth's atmosphere can have a cooling effect on the climate, and significant amounts of chlorine and bromine gases ejected in large eruptions can reach the stratosphere and deplete the ozone layer. The dust and ash can also be a hazard to air travel. The 1783 eruption of Laki, S Iceland, had devastating effects on local livestock and, as result, the populace; the resulting sulfur dioxide haze that spread over parts of Europe is believed to have negatively affected the health of the inhabitants.

Historical Volcanoes

Notable eruptions within historic times have been those of Vesuvius, in Italy (A.D. 79, 1906, and other times); Tambora, in Indonesia, where between 30 and 50 cu mi (125–210 cu km) of molten and shattered rock were blown into the air (1815); Krakatoa, near Java, material from which was sent 17 mi (27 km) into the atmosphere (1883); Parícutin, in Mexico, the volcano that began in a cornfield (1943); Hibok Hibok, on Camiguin island in the Philippines, which killed 84 people (1948); Besymianny, in Kamchatka, where 2 cu mi (8 cu km) of material were hurled into the air (1956); the peak of Tristan da Cunha, whose eruption caused the entire settlement to be evacuated (1961); Agung, in Bali, which killed 1,100 people (1963); Mt. St. Helens in Washington, which exploded with an energy equivalent to 10 million tons of TNT, killing 35, with 25 missing (1980); El Chichón in Mexico, which expelled about 500 million tons of ash and gas and killed some 2,000 people (1982); and Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which killed over 500 people and ejected over 2 cu mi (8 cu km) of material (1991). Other notable volcanoes are Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (Ecuador), Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl (Mexico), Lassen Peak and Katmai (United States), Etna (Sicily), and Hekla, Katla, and Laki (Iceland). Mauna Loa (Hawaii) is the world's largest active volcano, projecting 13,677 ft (4,170 m) above sea level and over 29,000 ft (8,850 m) above the ocean floor; from its base below sea level to its summit, Mauna Loa is taller than Mt. Everest. In 1963 the birth of the volcanic island Surtsey near Iceland was observed. In November of that year events began with a submarine eruption along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Eruption followed eruption until they ended in June, 1967, by which time the island stood 492 ft (150 m) above sea level and covered an area of almost 2 sq mi (3 sq km). The island has diminished in size since then due to erosion.

  • See S. Van Rose; I. Mercer, Volcanoes (2d ed. 1991);.
  • Martin, F. , Volcano (1996);.
  • Sigurdsson, H. , Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions (1999);.
  • Sigurdsson, H. et al., ed., Encyclopedia of Volcanoes (1999);.
  • Oppenheimer, C. , Eruptions that Shook the World (2011).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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