What are Volcanoes?

A volcano is an impressive sight. When they are dormant, they loom large over everything on the landscape. When they are active, they are a destructive force of nature that is without equal, raining fire and ash down on everything in site. And during the long periods when they are not erupting, they can also be rather beneficial to the surrounding environment.

But just what causes volcanoes? When it comes to our planet, they are the result of active geological forces that have shaped the surface of the Earth over the course of billions of years. And interestingly enough, there are plenty of examples of volcanoes on other bodies within our Solar System as well, some of which put those on Earth to shame!

Definition:

By definition, a volcano is a rupture in the Earth’s (or another celestial body’s) crust that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber located beneath the surface. The term is derived from Vulcano, a volcanically-active island located of the coast of Italy who’s name in turn comes from the Roman god of fire (Vulcan).

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
Artist’s illustration of the Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

On Earth, volcanoes are the result of the action between the major tectonic plates. These sections of the Earth’s crust are rigid, but sit atop the relatively viscous upper mantle. The hot molten rock, known as magma, is forced up to the surface – where it becomes lava. In short, volcanoes are found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging – such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge or the Pacific Ring of Fire – which causes magma to be forced to the surface.

Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the crust’s interior plates, such as in the the East African Rift and the Rio Grande Rift in North America. Volcanism can also occur away from plate boundaries, where upwelling magma is forced up into brittle sections of the crust, forming volcanic islands – such as the Hawaiian islands.

Erupting volcanoes pose many hazards, and not just to the surrounding countryside. In their immediate vicinity, hot, flowing lava can cause extensive damage to the environment, property, and endanger lives. However, volcanic ash can cause far-reaching damage, raining sulfuric acid, disrupting air travel, and even causing “volcanic winters” by obscuring the Sun (thus triggering local crop failures and famines).

Types of Volcanoes:

There are four major types of volcanoes – cinder cone, composite and shield volcanoes, and lava domes. Cinder cones are the simplest kind of volcano, which occur when magma is ejected from a volcanic vent. The ejected lava rains down around the fissure, forming an oval-shaped cone with a bowl-shaped crater on top. They are typically small, with few ever growing larger than about 300 meters (1,000 feet) above their surroundings.

Cinder cone Paricutin. Image credit: USGS
Paricutin, an example of a cinder cone volcano. Credit: USGS

Composite volcanoes (aka. stratovolcanoes) are formed when a volcano conduit connects a subsurface magma reservoir to the Earth’s surface. These volcanoes typically have several vents that cause magma to break through the walls and spew from fissures on the sides of the mountain as well as the summit.

These volcanoes are known for causing violent eruptions. And thanks to all this ejected material, these volcanoes can grow up to thousands of meters tall. Examples include Mount Rainier (4,392 m; 14,411 ft), Mount Fuji (3,776 m; 12,389 ft), Mount Cotopaxi (5,897 m; 19,347 ft) and Mount Saint Helens (2,549 mm; 8,363 ft).

Shield volcanoes are so-named because of their large, broad surfaces. With these types of volcanoes, the lava that pours forth is thin, allowing it to travel great distances down the shallow slopes. This lava cools and builds up slowly over time, with hundreds of eruptions creating many layers. They are therefore not likely to be catastrophic. Some of the best known examples are those that make up the Hawaiian Islands, especially Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Volcanic or lava domes are created by small masses of lava which are too viscous to flow very far. Unlike shield volcanoes, which have low-viscosity lava, the slow-moving lava simply piles up over the vent. The dome grows by expansion over time, and the mountain forms from material spilling off the sides of the growing dome. Lava domes can explode violently, releasing a huge amount of hot rock and ash.

Artist's impression of a what lies beneath the Yellowstone volcano. Credit: Hernán Cañellas/National Geographic
Artist’s impression of a what lies beneath the Yellowstone volcano. Credit: Hernán Cañellas/National Geographic

Volcanoes can also be found on the ocean floor, known as submarine volcanoes. These are often revealed through the presence of blasting steam and rocky debris above the ocean’s surface, though the pressure of the ocean’s water can often prevent an explosive release.

In these cases, lava cools quickly on contact with ocean water, and forms pillow-shaped masses on the ocean floor (called pillow lava). Hydrothermal vents are also common around submarine volcano, which can support active and peculiar ecosystems because of the energy, gases and minerals they release. Over time, the formations created by submarine volcanoes may become so large that they become islands.

Volcanoes can also developed under icecaps, which are known as subglacial volcanoes. In these cases, flat lava flows on top of pillow lava, which results from lava quickly cooling upon contact with ice. When the icecap melts, the lava on top collapses, leaving a flat-topped mountain. Very good examples of this type of volcano can be seen in Iceland and British Columbia, Canada.

Examples on Other Planets:

Volcanoes can be found on many bodies within the Solar System. Examples include Jupiter’s moon Io, which periodically experiences volcanic eruptions that reach up to 500 km (300 mi) into space. This volcanic activity is caused by friction or tidal dissipation produced in Io’s interior, which is responsible for melting a significant amount of Io’s mantle and core.

Model of the possible interior composition of Io with various features labelled. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Model of the possible interior composition of Io with various features labelled. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

It’s colorful surface (orange, yellow, green, white/grey, etc.) shows the presence of sulfuric and silicate compounds, which were clearly deposited by volcanic eruptions. The lack of impact craters on its surface, which is uncommon on a Jovian moon, is also indicative of surface renewal.

Mars has also experienced intense volcanic activity in its past, as evidenced by Olympus Mons – the largest volcano in the Solar System. While most of its volcanic mountains are extinct and collapsed, the Mars Express spacecraft observed evidence of more recent volcanic activity, suggesting that Mars may still be geologically active.

Much of Venus’ surface has been shaped by volcanic activity as well. While Venus has several times the number of Earth’s volcanoes, they were believed to all be extinct. However, there is a multitude of evidence that suggests that there may still be active volcanoes on Venus which contribute to its dense atmosphere and runaway Greenhouse Effect.

For instance, during the 1970s, multiple Soviet Venera missions conducted surveys of Venus. These missions obtained evidence of thunder and lightning within the atmosphere, which may have been the result of volcanic ash interacting with the atmosphere. Similar evidence was gathered by the ESA’s Venus Express probe in 2007.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

This same mission observed transient localized infrared hot spots on the surface of Venus in 2008 and 2009, specifically in the rift zone Ganis Chasma – near the shield volcano Maat Mons. The Magellan probe also noted evidence of volcanic activity from this mountain during its mission in the early 1990s, using radar-sounding to detect ash flows near the summit.

Cryovolcanism:

In addition to “hot volcanoes” that spew molten rock, there are also cryovolcanoes (aka. “cold volcanoes”). These types of volcanoes involve volatile compounds  – i.e. water, methane and ammonia – instead of lava breaking through the surface. They have been observed on icy bodies in the Solar System where liquid erupts from ocean’s hidden in the moon’s interior.

For instance, Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is known to have an interior ocean, is believed to experiences cryovolcanism. The earliest evidence for this had to do with its smooth and young surface, which points towards endogenic resurfacing and renewal. Much like hot magma, water and volatiles erupt onto the surface where they then freeze to cover up impact craters and other features.

In addition, plumes of water were observed in 2012 and again in 2016 using the Hubble Space Telescope. These intermittent plumes were observed on both occasions to be coming in the southern region of Europa, and were estimated to be reach up to 200 km (125 miles) before depositing water ice and material back onto the surface.

In 2005, the Cassini-Huygens mission detected evidence of cryovolcanism on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus. In the former case, the probe used infrared imaging to penetrate Titan’s dense clouds and detect signs of a 30 km (18.64 mi) formation, which was believed to be caused by the upwelling of hydrocarbon ices beneath the surface.

On Enceladus, cryovolcanic activity has been confirmed by observing plumes of water and organic molecules being ejected from the moon’s south pole. These plumes are are thought to have originated from the moon’s interior ocean, and are composed mostly of water vapor, molecular nitrogen, and volatiles (such as methane, carbon dioxide and other hydrocarbons).

In 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft observed cryovolcanoes ejecting plumes of water ammonia and nitrogen gas on Neptune’s moon Triton. These nitrogen geysers were observed sending plumes of liquid nitrogen 8 km (5 mi) above the surface of the moon. The surface is also quite young, which was seen as indication of endogenic resurfacing. It is also theorized that cryovolcanism may also be present on the Kuiper Belt Object Quaoar.

Here on Earth, volcanism takes the form of hot magma being pushed up through the Earth’s silicate crust due to convention in the interior. However, this kind of activity is present on all planet that formed from silicate material and minerals, and where geological activity or tidal stresses are known to exist. But on other bodies, it consists of cold water and materials from the interior ocean being forced through to the icy surface.

Color Mosaic of Olympus Mons on Mars
Color Mosaic of Olympus Mons on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Today, our knowledge of volcanism (and the different forms it can take) is the result of improvements in both the field of geology, as well as space exploration. The more we learn of about other planets, the more we are able to see startling similarities and contrasts with our own (and vice versa).

We have written many interesting articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes, What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?, How Do Volcanoes Erupt?, What Are The Benefits Of Volcanoes?, What is the Difference Between Active and Dormant Volcanoes?

For more information, be sure to check out What is a Volcano? at NASA Space Place.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject – Episode 141: Volcanoes Hot and Cold.

Sources:

What Are The Different Parts Of A Volcano?

Without a doubt, volcanoes are one of the most powerful forces of nature a person can bear witness to. Put simply, they are what results when a massive rupture takes place in the Earth’s crust (or any planetary-mass object), spewing hot lava, volcanic ash, and toxic fumes onto the surface and air. Originating from deep within the Earth’s crust, volcanoes leave a lasting mark on the landscape.

But what are the specific parts of a volcano? Aside from the “volcanic cone” (i.e. the cone-shaped mountain), a volcano has many different parts and layers, most of which are located within the mountainous region or deep within the Earth. As such, any true understanding of their makeup requires that we do a little digging (so to speak!)

While volcanoes come in a number of shapes and sizes, certain common elements can be discerned. The following gives you a general breakdown of a volcanoes specific parts, and what goes into making them such a titanic and awesome natural force.

Magma Chamber:

A magma chamber is a large underground pool of molten rock sitting underneath the Earth’s crust. The molten rock in such a chamber is under extreme pressure, which in time can lead to the surrounding rock fracturing, creating outlets for the magma. This, combined with the fact that the magma is less dense than the surrounding mantle, allows it to seep up to the surface through the mantle’s cracks.

Lava cooling after an eruption, Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com
Lava cooling after an eruption from Kilauea, a shield volcano near Kalapana, Hawaii Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com

When it reaches the surface, it results in a volcanic eruption. Hence why many volcanoes are located above a magma chamber. Most known magma chambers are located close to the Earth’s surface, usually between 1 km and 10 km deep. In geological terms, this makes them part of the Earth’s crust – which ranges from 5–70 km (~3–44 miles) deep.

Lava:

Lava is the silicate rock that is hot enough to be in liquid form, and which is expelled from a volcano during an eruption. The source of the heat that melts the rock is known as geothermal energy – i.e. heat generated within the Earth that is leftover from its formation and the decay of radioactive elements. When lava first erupted from a volcanic vent (see below), it comes out with a temperature of anywhere between 700 to 1,200 °C (1,292 to 2,192 °F). As it makes contact with air and flows downhill, it eventually cools and hardens.

Main Vent:

A volcano’s main vent is the weak point in the Earth’s crust where hot magma has been able to rise from the magma chamber and reach the surface. The familiar cone-shape of many volcanoes are an indication of this, the point at which ash, rock and lava ejected during an eruption fall back to Earth around the vent to form a protrusion.

Throat:

The uppermost section of the main vent is known as the volcano’s throat. As the entrance to the volcano, it is from here that lava and volcanic ash are ejected.

 Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI
Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI

Crater:

In addition to cone structures, volcanic activity can also lead to circular depressions (aka. craters) forming in the Earth. A volcanic crater is typically a basin, circular in form, which can be large in radius and sometimes great in depth. In these cases, the lava vent is located at the bottom of the crater. They are formed during certain types of climactic eruptions, where the volcano’s magma chamber empties enough for the area above it to collapse, forming what is known as a caldera.

Pyroclastic Flow:

Otherwise known as a pyroclastic density current, a pyroclastic flow refers to a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock that is moving away from a volcano. Such flows can reach speeds of up to 700 km/h (450 mph), with the gas reaching temperatures of about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). Pyroclastic flows normally hug the ground and travel downhill from their eruption site.

Their speeds depend upon the density of the current, the volcanic output rate, and the gradient of the slope. Given their speed, temperature, and the way they flow downhill, they are one of the greatest dangers associated with volcanic eruptions and are one of the primary causes of damage to structures and the local environment around an eruption site.

Ash Cloud:

Volcanic ash consists of small pieces of pulverized rock, minerals and volcanic glass created during a volcanic eruption. These fragments are generally very small, measuring less than 2 mm (0.079 inches) in diameter. This sort of ash forms as a result of volcanic explosions, where dissolved gases in magma expand to the point where the magma shatters and is propelled into the atmosphere. The bits of magma then cool, solidifying into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.

Volcanoes
View of volcanic ash spewing from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. Credit: ©Snaevarr Gudmundsson.

Because of their size and the explosive force with which they are generated, volcanic ash is picked up by winds and dispersed up to several kilometers away from the eruption site. Due to this dispersal, ash an also have a damaging effect on the local environment, which includes negatively affecting human and animal health, disrupting aviation, disrupting infrastructure, and damaging agriculture and water systems. Ash is also produced when magma comes into contact with water, which causes the water to explosively evaporate into steam and for the magma to shatter.

Volcanic Bombs:

In addition to ash, volcanic eruptions have also been known to send larger projectiles flying through the air. Known as volcanic bombs, these ejecta are defined as those that measure more than 64mm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and which are formed when a volcano ejects viscous fragments of lava during an eruption. These cool before they hit the ground, are thrown many kilometers from the eruption site, and often acquire aerodynamic shapes (i.e. streamlined in form).

While the term applies to any ejecta larger than a few centimeters, volcanic bombs can sometimes be very large. There have been recorded instances where objects measuring several meters were retrieved hundreds of meters from an eruptions. Small or large, volcanic bombs are a significant volcanic hazard and can often cause serious damage and multiple fatalities, depending on where they land. Luckily, such explosions are rare.

Secondary Vent:

On large volcanoes, magma can reach the surface through several different vents. Where they reach the surface of the volcano, they form what is referred to as a secondary vent. Where they are interrupted by accumulated ash and solidified lava, they become what is known as a Dike. And where these intrude between cracks, pool and then crystallize, they form what is called a Sill.

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 MesserWoland
Cross-section of a stratovolcano: 1. Magma chamber 2. Bedrock 3. Vent 4. Base 5. Sill 6. Dike 7. Layers of ash 8. Flank 9. Layers of lava 10. Throat 11. Parasitic cone 12. Lava flow 13. Vent 14. Crater 15. Ash cloud. Credit: MesserWoland

Secondary Cone:

Also known as a Parasitic Cone, secondary cones build up around secondary vents that reach the surface on larger volcanoes. As they deposit lava and ash on the exterior, they form a smaller cone, one that resembles a horn on the main cone.

Yes indeed, volcanoes are as powerful as they are dangerous. And yet, without these geological phenomena occasionally breaking through the surface and reigning down fire, smoke, and clouds of ash, the world as we know it would be a very different place. More than likely, it would be a geologically dead one, with no change or evolution in its crust. I think we can all agree that while such a world would be much safer, it would also be painfully boring!

We have written many interesting articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s is one about the different types of volcanoes, one about composite volcanoes, and here’s one on the famous volcanic belt, the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

Astronomy Cast also has a lovely episodes about volcanoes and geology, titled Episode 307: Pacific Ring of Fire and Episode 51: Earth

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.