What is the Difference Between Active and Dormant Volcanoes?

Volcanoes are an impressive force of nature. Physically, they dominate the landscape, and have an active role in shaping our planet’s geography. When they are actively erupting, they are an extremely dangerous and destructive force. But when they are passive, the soil they enrich can become very fertile, leading to settlements and cities being built nearby.

Such is the nature of volcanoes, and is the reason why we distinguish between those that are “active” and those that are “dormant”. But what exactly is the differences between the two, and how do geologists tell? This is actually a complicated question, because there’s no way to know for sure if a volcano is all done erupting, or if it’s going to become active again.

Put simply, the most popular way for classifying volcanoes comes down to the frequency of their eruption. Those that erupt regularly are called active, while those that have erupted in historical times but are now quiet are called dormant (or inactive). But in the end, knowing the difference all comes down to timing!

Sarychev volcano, (located in Russia's Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan) in an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Credit: NASA
Sarychev volcano, (located in Russia’s Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan) in an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Credit: NASA

Active Volcano:

Currently, there is no consensus among volcanologists about what constitutes “active”. Volcanoes – like all geological features – can have very long lifespans, varying between months to even millions of years. In the past few thousand years, many of Earth’s volcanoes have erupted many times over, but currently show no signs of impending eruption.

As such, the term “active” can mean only active in terms of human lifespans, which are entirely different from the lifespans of volcanoes. Hence why scientists often consider a volcano to be active only if it is showing signs of unrest (i.e. unusual earthquake activity or significant new gas emissions) that mean it is about to erupt.

The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program defines a volcano as active only if it has erupted in the last 10,000 years. Another means for determining if a volcano is active comes from the International Association of Volcanology, who use historical time as a reference (i.e. recorded history).

Aleutian island #volcano letting off a little steam after the new year on Jan 2, 2016. #YearInSpace. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Aleutian island #volcano letting off a little steam after the new year on Jan 2, 2016. #YearInSpace. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

By this definition, those volcanoes that have erupted in the course of human history (which includes more than 500 volcanoes) are defined as active. However, this too is problematic, since this varies from region to region – with some areas cataloging volcanoes for thousands of years, while others only have records for the past few centuries.

As such, an “active volcano” can be best described as one that’s currently in a state of regular eruptions. Maybe it’s going off right now, or had an event in the last few decades, or geologists expect it to erupt again very soon. In short, if its spewing fire or likely to again in the near future, then it’s active!

Dormant Volcano:

Meanwhile, a dormant volcano is used to refer to those that are capable of erupting, and will probably erupt again in the future, but hasn’t had an eruption for a very long time. Here too, definitions become complicated since it is difficult to distinguish between a volcano that is simply not active at present, and one that will remain inactive.

Volcanoes are often considered to be extinct if there are no written records of its activity. Nevertheless, volcanoes may remain dormant for a long period of time. For instance, the volcanoes of Yellowstone, Toba, and Vesuvius were all thought to be extinct before their historic and devastating eruptions.

The area around the Vesuvius volcano is now densely populated. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Jeffmatt
The area around Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 CE, is now densely populated. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Jeffmatt

The same is true of the Fourpeaked Mountain eruption in Alaska in 2006. Prior to this, the volcano was thought to be extinct since it had not erupted for over 10,000 years. Compare that to Mount Grímsvötn in south-east Iceland, which erupted three times in the past 12 years (in 2011, 2008 and 2004, respectively).

And so a dormant volcano is actually part of the active volcano classification, it’s just that it’s not currently erupting.

Extinct Volcano:

Geologists also employ the category of extinct volcano to refer to volcanoes that have become cut off from their magma supply. There are many examples of extinct volcanoes around the world, many of which are found in the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain in the Pacific Ocean, or stand individually in some areas.

For example, the Shiprock volcano, which stands in Navajo Nation territory in New Mexico, is an example of a solitary extinct volcano. Edinburgh Castle, located just outside the capitol of Edinburgh, Scotland, is famously located atop an extinct volcano.

An aerial image of the Shiprock extinct volcano. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Aerial photograph of the Shiprock extinct volcano. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But of course, determining if a volcano is truly extinct is often difficult, since some volcanoes can have eruptive lifespans that measure into the millions of years. As such, some volcanologists refer to extinct volcanoes as inactive, and some volcanoes once thought to be extinct are now referred to as dormant.

In short, knowing if a volcano is active, dormant, or extinct is complicated and all comes down to timing. And when it comes to geological features, timing is quite difficult for us mere mortals. Individuals and generations have limited life spans, nations rise and fall, and even entire civilization sometimes bite the dust.

But volcanic formations? They can endure for millions of years! Knowing if there still life in them requires hard work, good record-keeping, and (above all) immense patience.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s Ten Interesting Facts About Volcanoes, What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?, How Do Volcanoes Erupt?, What is a Volcano Conduit?, and What are the Benefits of Volcanoes?

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

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.


What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

Continue reading “What Causes Air Pollution?”

New Study Reveals Little Ice Age Triggered By Volcanism


In a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder with co-authors at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, researchers may have possibly found evidence the “Little Ice Age” may have had ties to an unusual era of volcanic activity… one that lasted for about 50 years. In just five decades, four massive tropical volcanic eruptions managed to take Earth’s entire environment and put it on ice. Somewhere near the years between 1275 and 1300 A.D., these eruptions caused some very cool summer weather in the northern hemisphere which triggered an expansion of sea ice that – in turn – weakened Atlantic currents. However, it didn’t weaken the already cool climate. It strengthened it.

The international study was done in layers – like a good cake – but instead of sweet frosting, it was a composite look at dead vegetation, ice and sediment core data. By engaging highly detailed computer climate modeling, scientists are now able to have a strong theory of what triggered the Little Ice Age.. a theory which begins with decreased summer solar radiation and progresses through erupting volcanoes. Here planet-wide cooling could have been started by sulfates and other aerosols being ejected into our atmosphere and reflecting sunlight back into space. Simulations have shown it could have even been a combination of both scenarios.

“This is the first time anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age,” says lead author Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder. “We also have provided an understandable climate feedback system that explains how this cold period could be sustained for a long period of time. If the climate system is hit again and again by cold conditions over a relatively short period—in this case, from volcanic eruptions—there appears to be a cumulative cooling effect.”

“Our simulations showed that the volcanic eruptions may have had a profound cooling effect,” says NCAR scientist Bette Otto-Bliesner, a co-author of the study. “The eruptions could have triggered a chain reaction, affecting sea ice and ocean currents in a way that lowered temperatures for centuries.” The team’s research papers will be published this week in Geophysical Research Letters. Members of the group include co-authors from the University of Iceland, the University of California Irvine, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor, and the Icelandic Science Foundation.

“Scientific estimates regarding the onset of the Little Ice Age range from the 13th century to the 16th century, but there is little consensus,” Miller says. It’s fairly clear these lower temperatures had an impact on more southerly regions such as South American and China, but the effect was far more clear in areas such as northern Europe. Glacial movement eradicated populated regions and historical images show people ice skating in places known to be too warm for such solid freezing activities before the Little Ice Age.

“The dominant way scientists have defined the Little Ice Age is by the expansion of big valley glaciers in the Alps and in Norway,” says Miller, a fellow at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “But the time in which European glaciers advanced far enough to demolish villages would have been long after the onset of the cold period.”

By employing the technique of radiocarbon dating, approximately 150 plant specimens, complete with roots, were gathered from the receding edges of ice caps located on Baffin Island in the Canadian Artic. In these samples they found evidence of a “kill date” which ranged between 1275 and 1300 A.D. This information led the team to surmise the plants were quickly frozen and then just as quickly encased in solid ice. A second documented kill date occurred about 1450 A.D. showing another major event. To further flesh out their findings, the research team took sediment sample cores from a glacial lake which is linked to the mile-high Langikull ice cap. These important samples from Iceland can be reliably dated back as far as 1,000 years and the results showed a sudden increase in ice during the late 13th century and again in the 15th. Thanks to these techniques which rely on the presence tephra deposits, we know these climate cooling events occurred as a result of volcanic eruptions.

“That showed us the signal we got from Baffin Island was not just a local signal, it was a North Atlantic signal,” Miller says. “This gave us a great deal more confidence that there was a major perturbation to the Northern Hemisphere climate near the end of the 13th century.”

What brought the team to their final conclusions? Through the use of the Community Climate System Model developed by scientists at NCAR and the Department of Energy with colleagues at other organizations, they were able to simulate the impact of volcanic cooling on the extent and mass of Artic sea ice. The model painted a portrait of what could have occurred from about 1150 to 1700 A.D. and showed that some large scale eruptions could have impacted the northern hemisphere if they happened within a close time frame. In this scenario, the long term cooling effect could have expanded the Artic Sea ice to the point where it eventually met – and melted – in the North Atlantic. During the modeling, the solar radiation was set at a constant to show ” the Little Ice Age likely would have occurred without decreased summer solar radiation at the time.” concluded Miller.

Original Story Source: Univsersity Corporation for Atmospheric Research.