Earth’s lithosphere is made up of seven large tectonic plates and a number of smaller ones. The theory of plate tectonics that describes how these plates move is about 50 years old. But there’s never really been an understanding of how this system developed, and how the Earth’s shell split into separate plates and started moving.
Now a group of researchers have a possible explanation.
Volcanoes come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from common cinder cone volcanoes that build up from repeated eruptions and lava domes that pile up over volcanic vents to broad shield volcanoes and composite volcanoes. Though they differ in terms of structure and appearance, they all share two things. On the one hand, they are all awesome forces of nature that both terrify and inspire.
On the other, all volcanic activity comes down to the same basic principle. In essence, all eruptions are the result of magma from beneath the Earth being pushed up to the surface where it erupts as lava, ash and rock. But what mechanisms drive this process? What is it exactly that makes molten rock rise from the Earth’s interior and explode onto the landscape?
To understand how volcanoes erupt, one first needs to consider the structure of the Earth. At the very top is the lithosphere, the outermost layers of the Earth that consists of the upper mantle and crust. The crust makes up a tiny volume of the Earth, ranging from 10 km in thickness on the ocean floor to a maximum of 100 km in mountainous regions. It is cold and rigid, and composed primarily of silicate rock.
Beneath the crust, the Earth’s mantle is divided into sections of varying thickness based on their seismology. These consist of the upper mantle, which extends from a depth of 7 – 35 km (4.3 to 21.7 mi)) to 410 km (250 mi); the transition zone, which ranges from 410–660 km (250–410 mi); the lower mantle, which ranges from 660–2,891 km (410–1,796 mi); and the core–mantle boundary, which is ~200 km (120 mi) thick on average.
In the mantle region, conditions change drastically from the crust. Pressures increase considerably and temperatures can reach up to 1000 °C, which makes the rock viscous enough that it behaves like a liquid. In short, it experiences elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. This viscous, molten rock collects into vast chambers beneath the Earth’s crust.
Since this magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, it ” floats” up to the surface, seeking out cracks and weaknesses in the mantle. When it finally reaches the surface, it explodes from the summit of a volcano. When it’s beneath the surface, the molten rock is called magma. When it reaches the surface, it erupts as lava, ash and volcanic rocks.
With each eruption, rocks, lava and ash build up around the volcanic vent. The nature of the eruption depends on the viscosity of the magma. When the lava flows easily, it can travel far and create wide shield volcanoes. When the lava is very thick, it creates a more familiar cone volcano shape (aka. a cinder cone volcano). When the lava is extremely thick, it can build up in the volcano and explode (lava domes).
Another mechanism that drives volcanism is the motion the crust undergoes. To break it down, the lithosphere is divided into several plates, which are constantly in motion atop the mantle. Sometimes the plates collide, pull apart, or slide alongside each other; resulting in convergent boundaries, divergent boundaries, and transform boundaries. This activity is what drives geological activity, which includes earthquakes and volcanoes.
In the case of the former, subduction zones are often the result, where the heavier plate slips under the lighter plate – forming a deep trench. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, this rising magma creates a series of active volcanoes known as a volcanic arc.
In short, volcanoes are driven by pressure and heat in the mantle, as well as tectonic activity that leads to volcanic eruptions and geological renewal. The prevalence of volcanic eruptions in certain regions of the world – such as the Pacific Ring of Fire – also has a profound impact on the local climate and geography. For example, such regions are generally mountainous, have rich soil, and periodically experience the formation of new landmasses.
Few forces in nature are are impressive or frightening as a volcanic eruption. In an instant, from within the rumbling depths of the Earth, hot lava, steam, and even chunks of hot rock are spewed into the air, covering vast distances with fire and ash. And thanks to the efforts of geologists and Earth scientists over the course of many centuries, we have to come to understand a great deal about them.
However, when it comes to the nomenclature of volcanoes, a point of confusion often arises. Again and again, one of the most common questions about volcanoes is, what is the difference between lava and magma? They are both molten rock, and are both associated with volcanism. So why the separate names? As it turns out, it all comes down to location.
As anyone with a basic knowledge of geology will tell you, the insides of the Earth are very hot. As a terrestrial planet, its interior is differentiated between a molten, metal core, and a mantle and crust composed primarily of silicate rock. Life as we know it, consisting of all vegetation and land animals, live on the cool crust, whereas sea life inhabits the oceans that cover a large extent of this same crust.
However, the deeper one goes into the planet, both pressures and temperatures increase considerably. All told, Earth’s mantle extends to a depth of about 2,890 km, and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium relative to the overlying crust. Although solid, the high temperatures within the mantle cause pockets of molten rock to form.
This silicate material is less dense than the surrounding rock, and is therefore sufficiently ductile that it can flow on very long timescales. Over time, it will also reach the surface as geological forces push it upwards. This happens as a result of tectonic activity.
Basically, the cool, rigid crust is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates are rigid segments that move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries. These are known as convergent boundaries, at which two plates come together; divergent boundaries, at which two plates are pulled apart; and transform boundaries, in which two plates slide past one another laterally.
Interactions between these plates are what is what is volcanic activity (best exemplified by the “Pacific Ring of Fire“) as well as mountain-building. As the tectonic plates migrate across the planet, the ocean floor is subducted – the leading edge of one plate pushing under another. At the same time, mantle material will push up at divergent boundaries, forcing molten rock to the surface.
As already noted, both lava and magma are what results from rock superheated to the point where it becomes viscous and molten. But again, the location is the key. When this molten rock is still located within the Earth, it is known as magma. The name is derived from Greek, which translate to “thick unguent” (a word used to describe a viscous substance used for ointments or lubrication).
It is composed of molten or semi-molten rock, volatiles, solids (and sometimes crystals) that are found beneath the surface of the Earth. This vicious rock usually collects in a magma chamber beneath a volcano, or solidify underground to form an intrusion. Where it forms beneath a volcano, it can then be injected into cracks in rocks or issue out of volcanoes in eruptions. The temperature of magma ranges between 600 °C and 1600 °C.
Magma is also known to exist on other terrestrial planets in the Solar System (i.e. Mercury, Venus and Mars) as well as certain moons (Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s moon Io). In addition to stable lava tubes being observed on Mercury, the Moon and Mars, powerful volcanoes have been observed on Io that are capable of sending lava jets 500 km (300 miles) into space.
When magma reaches the surface and erupts from a volcano, it officially becomes lava. There are actually different kinds of lava depending on its thickness or viscosity. Whereas the thinnest lava can flow downhill for many kilometers (thus creating a gentle slope), thicker lavas will pile up around a volcanic vent and hardly flow at all. The thickest lava doesn’t even flow, and just plugs up the throat of a volcano, which in some cases cause violent explosions.
The term lava is usually used instead of lava flow. This describes a moving outpouring of lava, which occurs when a non-explosive effusive eruption takes place. Once a flow has stopped moving, the lava solidifies to form igneous rock. Although lava can be up to 100,000 times more viscous than water, lava can flow over great distances before cooling and solidifying.
The word “lava” comes from Italian, and is probably derived from the Latin word labes which means “a fall” or “slide”. The first use in connection with a volcanic event was apparently in a short written account by Franscesco Serao, who observed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius between May 14th and June 4th, 1737. Serao described “a flow of fiery lava” as an analogy to the flow of water and mud down the flanks of the volcano following heavy rain.
Such is the difference between magma and lava. It seems that in geology, as in real estate, its all about location!
Want some volcano facts? Here are 10 interesting facts about volcanoes. Some of these facts you’ll know, and others may surprise you. Whatever the case, volcanoes are amazing features of nature that demand our respect.
1. There are Three Major Kinds of Volcanoes:
Although volcanoes are all made from hot magma reaching the surface of the Earth and erupting, there are different kinds. Shield volcanoes have lava flows with low viscosity that flow dozens of kilometers; this makes them very wide with smoothly sloping flanks.
Stratovolcanoes are made up of different kinds of lava, and eruptions of ash and rock and grow to enormous heights. Cinder cone volcanoes are usually smaller, and come from short-lived eruptions that only make a cone about 400 meters high.
2. Volcanoes Erupt Because of Escaping Magma:
About 30 km beneath your feet is the Earth’s mantle. It’s a region of superhot rock that extends down to the Earth’s core. This region is so hot that molten rock can squeeze out and form giant bubbles of liquid rock called magma chambers. This magma is lighter than the surrounding rock, so it rises up, finding cracks and weakness in the Earth’s crust.
When it finally reaches the surface, it erupts out of the ground as lava, ash, volcanic gasses and rock. It’s called magma when it’s under the ground, and lava when it erupts onto the surface.
3. Volcanoes can be Active, Dormant or Extinct:
An active volcano is one that has had an eruption in historical times (in the last few thousand years). A dormant volcano is one that has erupted in historical times and has the potential to erupt again, it just hasn’t erupted recently. An extinct volcano is one that scientists think probably won’t erupt again. Here’s more information on the active volcanoes in the world.
4. Volcanoes can Grow Quickly:
Although some volcanoes can take thousands of years to form, others can grow overnight. For example, the cinder cone volcano Paricutin appeared in a Mexican cornfield on February 20, 1943. Within a week it was 5 stories tall, and by the end of a year it had grown to more than 336 meters tall. It ended its grown in 1952, at a height of 424 meters. By geology standards, that’s pretty quick.
5. There are 20 Volcanoes Erupting Right Now:
Somewhere, around the world, there are likely about 20 active volcanoes erupting as you’re reading this. Some are experiencing new activity, others are ongoing. Between 50-70 volcanoes erupted last year, and 160 were active in the last decade. Geologists estimate that 1,300 erupted in the last 10,000 years.
Three quarters of all eruptions happen underneath the ocean, and most are actively erupting and no geologist knows about it at all. One of the reasons is that volcanoes occur at the mid ocean ridges, where the ocean’s plates are spreading apart. If you add the underwater volcanoes, you get an estimate that there are a total of about 6,000 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years.
6. Volcanoes are Dangerous:
But then you knew that. Some of the most deadly volcanoes include Krakatoa, which erupted in 1883, releasing a tsunami that killed 36,000 people. When Vesuvius exploded in AD 79, it buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing 16,000 people.
Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique destroyed a town with 30,000 people in 1902. The most dangerous aspect of volcanoes are the deadly pyroclastic flows that blast down the side of a volcano during an eruption. These contain ash, rock and water moving hundreds of kilometers an hour, and hotter than 1,000 degrees C.
7. Supervolcanoes are Really Dangerous:
Geologists measure volcano eruptions using the Volcano Explosivity Index, which measures the amount of material released. A “small” eruption like Mount St. Helens was a 5 out of 8, releasing a cubic kilometer of material. The largest explosion on record was Toba, thought to have erupted 73,000 years ago.
It released more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of material, and created a caldera 100 km long and 30 kilometers wide. The explosion plunged the world into a world wide ice age. Toba was considered an 8 on the VEI.
8. The Tallest Volcano in the Solar System isn’t on Earth:
That’s right, the tallest volcano in the Solar System isn’t on Earth at all, but on Mars. Olympus Mons, on Mars, is a giant shield volcano that rises to an elevation of 27 km, and it measures 550 km across. Scientists think that Olympus Mons was able to get so large because there aren’t any plate tectonics on Mars. A single hotspot was able to bubble away for billions of years, building the volcano up bigger and bigger.
9. The Tallest and Biggest Volcanoes on Earth are side by side:
The tallest volcano on Earth is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, with an elevation of 4,207 meters. It’s only a little bigger than the largest volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa with an elevation of only 4,169 meters. Both are shield volcanoes that rise up from the bottom of the ocean. If you could measure Mauna Kea from the base of the ocean to its peak, you’d get a true height of 10,203 meters (and that’s bigger than Mount Everest).
10. The Most Distant Point from the Center of the Earth is a Volcano:
You might think that the peak of Mount Everest is the most distant point from the center of the Earth, but that’s not true. Instead, it’s the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador. That’s because the Earth is spinning in space and is flattened out. Points at the equator are further from the center of the Earth than the poles. And Chimborazo is very close to the Earth’s equator.
Recent images from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft reveal long rows of crater-like depressions lining the flanks of ancient Martian volcanoes located in the planet’s vast Tharsis region. Rather than being the result of impact events, these “pit chains” were likely caused by underground lava flows — and could be a prime location for look for life.
Like similar features found on Earth, lava tubes on Mars are the result of rivers of magma that carved channels beneath the surface. When these channels empty out, a hollow tube is left. If the roof of a particularly large tube is near the surface the roof can eventually collapse, creating a surface depression… or, in some cases, opening up to the surface entirely.
Even though volcanism on Mars isn’t currently active — the last eruptions probably took place at least over a million years ago — the features left by volcanic activity are still very much present today and likely well-preserved beneath the Martian surface.
Shielded from harsh solar and cosmic radiation, the interior of such lava tubes could provide a safe haven for microbial life — especially if groundwater had found its way inside at some point.
Even though the surface of Mars can receive 250 times the radiation levels found on Earth, the layers of soil and rock surrounding the tubes can provide adequate protection for life, whether it be ancient Martian microbes or future explorers from Earth.
Of course, water and protection from radiation aren’t the only factors necessary for life. There also needs to be some source of heat. Fortunately, the pit chains imaged by Mars Express happen to be within one of the most volcano-laden areas of the Red Planet, a region called the Arcadia quadrangle. Within this area exist some of the largest volcanoes on Mars — and the Tractus Catena pits are located right in the middle of them.
If a heat source were ever to have been beneath the surface of Mars, there would be a good chance it would have been here.
And if our own planet is any measure of such things, where there’s heat and water there is often some form of life — however extreme the conditions may be.
“I’d like to see us land ON a volcano,” Dr. Tracy Gregg, a volcanologist with the University of Buffalo, had once told Universe Today back in 2004. “Right on the flanks. Often the best place to look for evidence of life on any planet is near volcanoes.”
“That may sound counterintuitive, but think about Yellowstone National Park , which really is nothing but a huge volcano,” Gregg elaborated. “Even when the weather in Wyoming is 20 below zero, all the geysers, which are fed by volcanic heat, are swarming with bacteria and all kinds of happy little things cruising around in the water. So, since we think that the necessary ingredients for life on Earth were water and heat, we are looking for the same things on Mars.”
As far as any remaining geothermal activity still happening beneath the Martian surface?
“I strongly suspect there are still molten (or at least mushy) magma bodies beneath the huge Tharsis volcanoes,” Gregg had said. (Read the full article here.)
On Earth, lava tubes, caves and underground spaces of all kinds harbor life, often specialized forms that are found no place else. Could this be (or have once been) the case on Mars as well? Only future exploration will tell. Until then, places like Tractus Catena will remain on scientists’ short list of places to look.
MESSENGER captured this high-resolution image of an elongated pit crater within the floor of the 355-km (220-mile) -wide crater Tolstoj on Mercury on Jan. 11, 2012. The low angle of sun illumination puts the interior of the pit crater into deep shadow, making it appear bottomless.
Pit craters are not caused by impacts, but rather by the collapse of the roof of an underground magma chamber. They are characterized by the lack of a rim or surrounding ejecta blankets, and are often not circular in shape.
Since the floor of Tolstoj crater is thought to have once been flooded by lava, a pit crater is not out of place here.
The presence of such craters on Mercury indicates past volcanic activity on Mercury contributing to the planet’s evolution.
A team of NASA-funded researchers led by Carnegie Institution’s Erik Hauri has recently announced the discovery of more water on the Moon, in the form of ancient magma that has been locked up in tiny crystals contained within soil samples collected by Apollo 17 astronauts. The amounts found indicate there may be 100 times more water within lunar magma than previously thought… truly a “watershed” discovery!
Orange-colored lunar soil sampled during Apollo 17 EVA missions was tested using a new ion microprobe instrument which measured the water contained within magma trapped inside lunar crystals, called “melt inclusions”. The inclusions are the result of volcanic eruptions on the Moon that occurred over 3.7 billion years ago.
Because these bits of magma are encased in crystals they were not subject to loss of water or “other volatiles” during the explosive eruption process.
“In contrast to most volcanic deposits, the melt inclusions are encased in crystals that prevent the escape of water and other volatiles during eruption. These samples provide the best window we have to the amount of water in the interior of the Moon.”
– James Van Orman of Case Western Reserve University, team member
While it was previously found that water is contained within lunar magma during a 2008 study led by Alberto Saal of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, this new announcement is based upon the work of Brown undergraduate student Thomas Weinreich, who located the melt inclusions. By measuring the water content of the inclusions, the team could then infer the amount of water present in the Moon’s interior.
The results also make correlations to the proposed origins of the Moon. Currently-accepted models say the Moon was created following a collision between the newly-formed Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet 4.5 billion years ago. Material from the Earth’s outer layers was blasted out into space, forming a ring of molten material that encircled the Earth and eventually coalesced, cooled and became the Moon. This would also mean that the Moon should have similarities in composition to material that would have been found in the outer layers of the Earth at that time.
“The bottom line is that in 2008, we said the primitive water content in the lunar magmas should be similar to lavas coming from the Earth’s depleted upper mantle. Now, we have proven that is indeed the case.”
– Alberto Saal, Brown University, RI
The findings also suggest that the Moon’s water may not just be the result of comet or meteor impacts – as was suggested after the discovery of water ice in polar craters by the LCROSS mission in 2009 – but may also have come from within the Moon itself via ancient lunar eruptions.
The success of this study makes a strong case for finding and returning similar samples of ejected volcanic material from other worlds in our solar system.
“We can conceive of no sample type that would be more important to return to Earth than these volcanic glass samples ejected by explosive volcanism, which have been mapped not only on the Moon but throughout the inner solar system.”
– Erik Hauri, lead author, Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism