Basalt

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Basalt is a hard, black volcanic rock with less than 52% silica. Because of this low silica content, basalt has a low viscosity (thickness), and so it can flow for long distances after erupting from a volcano. During an eruption, a basalt lava flow can easily move more than 20 km away from a vent. Basalt is the most common rock type in the Earth’s crust. In fact, most of the ocean floor is made up of basalt.

Basalt is made up of dark colored materials like pyroxene and olivine, but it also contains lighter minerals like feldspar and quartz. These crystals form because the lava cools slowly after erupting out of a volcano. Although a lava flow might look cool shortly after an eruption, it might take months or even years to cool all the way through. The crystals are bigger in the middle of a cooled lava flow because that part had longer to cool. If a lava flow cools quickly, like when it falls into a lake or ocean, it becomes a glass-like rock called obsidian. This is because the crystals in the rock don’t have time to form.

Shield volcanoes are made up entirely of basalt lava eruptions. A good example of this are the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Over hundreds of thousands of years, they have built up tall volcanoes that are extremely wide because of the fast flowing basalt lava.

Geologists have found large outpourings of lava covering hundreds of kilometers of land called flood basalt. The largest of these is known as the Siberian Traps in northern Russia. This is a region of 1.5 million square kilometers covered by basalt.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about obsidian, and here’s an article about different types of lava.

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 are Active Volcanoes?

Geologists classify volcanoes into three distinct groups: dormant, extinct and active volcanoes. Dormant volcanoes haven’t erupted in a long time, but they could again; extinct volcanoes have erupted for thousands of years and might be dead. Active volcanoes, on the other hand, erupted recently, and they’re probably going to erupt again soon.

There are approximately 500 active volcanoes in the world today, not including those underneath the oceans. In fact, as you read these words, there are probably 20 volcanoes erupting right now. Between 50-70 volcanoes are erupting every year, 160 have erupted in the last decade. And there are about 550 that have erupted since the beginning of recorded history.

The definition of an active volcano is difficult to pin down, since single volcanoes can have networks of volcanic vents across their flanks. And Iceland, there can be eruptions along volcanic fields hundreds of kilometers long. At Mexico’s Michoacan-Guanajuanto field, there are 1,400 cinder cones, maars and shield volcanoes coming from a single magma chamber.

And these are just the volcanoes on land. Scientists estimate that 3/4 of the lava that reaches the Earth’s surface happens underwater at the submarine midocean ridges.

So when does a volcano become dormant or extinct? A volcano is active if it’s currently erupting or showing signs of unrest. The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program defines an active volcano as having erupted within the last 10,000 years. A volcano finally goes extinct when there’s no lava supply in the magma chamber beneath the volcano.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about dormant volcanoes, and here’s an article about extinct 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.

Cinder Cone Volcanoes

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Picture a volcano in your mind. You’re probably thinking of a cinder cone volcano, the simplest type of volcano. Cinder cone volcanos have steep sides with a bowl-shaped crater at the top.

Cinder cone volcanoes grow from a single vent in the Earth’s crust. Gas-charged lava is blown violently out of the volcano’s central vent, and the ash and rocks rain down around the vent. After multiple eruptions, the volcano takes on the familiar cone shape, with the erupted rubble forming the steep slopes. Cinder cones rarely grow much taller than 300 meters above their surroundings, and they’re common in western North America, and wherever there’s volcanic activity.

Although they can be solitary structures, cinder cones are often associated with other kinds of volcanoes, like shield volcanoes and stratovolcanoes (or a composite volcano). For example, geologists have discovered more than 100 cinder cones on the sides of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, one of the biggest volcano in the world. Each cinder cone comes from a vent that opened up on the sides of the volcano.

One of the most famous cinder cone volcanoes erupted out of a Mexican corn field in 1943. The volcano erupted for 9 years, and quickly built up the cinder cone to 424 meters, and covered 25 km2 of fields in lava flows and rubble. Nearby towns were eventually buried in ash by the eruptions.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the biggest volcano on Earth, and here’s one about the largest volcano in the Solar System.

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.