Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are some of the largest, most familiar mountains on Earth. Perhaps you’ve heard of Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro, or Mount Rainier? These are stratovolcanoes. They’ve got that familiar shape with the gently sloping lower sides and then the sharp cone shape at the top. They make up 60% of the Earth’s individual volcanoes.
They typically have a layered or stratified appearance, with alternating lava flows, mudflows, fallen ash, and other debris. They usually form along the margins of the Earth’s tectonic plates, where one plate is pushing beneath another, or they’re sliding together. This creates weaknesses in the Earth’s crust, where magma from beneath the surface can escape.
Stratovolcanoes will usually have a central caldera, or crater, at the top, but they will also have a network of vents. They can have many lava domes and smaller vents where eruptions can occur; not just from the top. The lava flows out of them is extremely thick, and sometimes it barely flows at all. This lava plugs up the plumbing in stratovolcanoes, allowing them to build up tremendous amounts of pressure.
Of all the volcanoes on Earth, stratovolcanoes are the most dangerous. They can erupt with little warning, releasing enormous amounts of material. And they don’t always erupt nicely from their tops. As we saw with Mount Saint Helens, they can blast out material from the side, creating pyroclastic flows the hurtle down the volcano’s flanks at enormous speeds. Some classic eruptions of stratovolcanoes include the island of Krakatoa, which detonated in 1883, sending ash 80 km into the atmosphere.
We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how a volcano triggered a lightning storm. And here’s an article about the largest volcano in the Solar System.
We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.