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Volcanic eruptions are among the Earth's most powerful and destructive forces. Imagine hearing a volcano erupt thousands of miles away.  Imagine looking through binoculars and seeing the top of a mountain collapse.   Imagine discovering an ancient Roman city that had been buried in volcanic ash.

Volcanoes are also creative forces.  The Earth's first oceans and atmosphere formed from the gases given off by volcanoes.  In turn, oceans and an atmosphere created the environment that made life possible on our planet.  Volcanoes have also shaped the Earth's landscape.  Many of our mountains, islands, and plains have been built by volcanic eruptions.

 Why Do Volcanoes Erupt?

Deep within the Earth it is so hot that some rocks slowly melt and become a thick flowing substance called magma. Because it is lighter than the solid rock around it, magma rises and collects in magma chambers. Eventually some of the magma pushes through vents and fissures in the Earth's surface.  A volcanic eruption occurs!  Magma that has erupted is called lava.

Some volcanic eruptions are explosive and others are not.  How explosive an eruption is depends on how runny or sticky the magma is.  If magma is thin and runny, gases can escape easily from it.  When this type of magma erupts, it flows out of the volcano.  Lava flows rarely kill people, because they move slowly enough for people to get out of their way.  Lava flows, however, can cause considerable destruction to buildings in their path.

If magma is thick and sticky, gases cannot escape easily.  Pressure builds up until the gases escape violently and explode.   In this type of eruption, the magma blasts into the air and breaks apart into pieces called tephra.  Tephra can range in size from tiny particles of ash to house-size boulders.

Explosive volcanic eruptions can be dangerous and deadly.  They can blast out clouds of hot tephra from the side or top of a volcano.  These fiery clouds race down mountainsides destroying almost everything in their path.  Ash erupted into the sky falls back to Earth like powdery snow, but snow that won't melt.  If thick enough, blankets of ash can suffocate plants, animals, and humans.  When hot volcanic materials mix with water from streams or melted snow and ice, mudflows form.  Mudflows have buried entire communities located near erupting volcanoes.

Because there may be hundreds or thousands of years between volcanic eruptions, people may not be aware of a volcano's dangers.   When Mount St. Helens in the State of Washington erupted in 1980, it had not erupted for 123 years.  Most people thought Mount St. Helens was a beautiful, peaceful mountain and not a dangerous volcano.

 Where Do Volcanoes Erupt?

Volcanoes occur because the Earth's crust is broken into plates that resemble a jigsaw puzzle. There are 16 major plates.   These rigid plates float on a softer layer of rock in the Earth's mantle.   As the plates move about they push together or pull apart.  Most volcanoes occur near the edges of plates.

When plates push together, one plate slides beneath the other.  This is a subduction zone. When the plunging plate gets deep enough inside the mantle, some of the rock on the overlying plate melts and forms magma that can move upward and erupt at the Earth's surface.  At rift zones, plates are moving apart and magma comes to the surface and erupts. Some volcanoes occur in the middle of plates at areas called hotspots – places where magma melts through the plate and erupts.

 Why Do Volcanoes Grow?

Volcanoes grow because of repeated eruptions. There are three main kinds, or shapes, of volcanoes based on the type of materials they erupt.

Stratovolcanoes build from eruptions of lava and tephra that pile up in layers, or strata, much like layers of cake and frosting. These volcanoes form symmetrical cones with steep sides.

Cinder cones build from erupting lava that breaks into small pieces as it blasts into the air. As the lava pieces fall back to the ground, they cool and harden into cinders that pile up around the volcano's vent. Cinder cones are very small cone-shaped volcanoes.

Shield volcanoes form from eruptions of flowing lava. The lava spreads out and builds up volcanoes with broad, gently sloping sides. The shape resembles a warrior's shield.

 Mount St. Helens!

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens violently erupted.  For 2 months the volcano showed signs that it was waking up from its 123-year sleep.  Earthquakes beneath the mountain increased.  Steam and ash erupted.  And a “bulge” grew on the mountain's steep north side.  All these warning signs signaled that magma was moving upward inside the volcano.

The First 35 Seconds

On the morning of the eruption, Gary Rosenquist was camped about 36 kilometers (11 miles) from the summit of Mount St. Helens. Another camper was looking through binoculars and noticed that the upper right side of the volcano looked “fuzzy.” He shouted that the “mountain was going.” Rosenquist began taking photographs.

An earthquake that occurred beneath the volcano shook loose the “bulge” on the mountain's steep north side. Rock and ice slide down the mountain. Then the mountain exploded gases, magma, and water laterally out the side where the “bulge” had been. The explosion hurled hot rock and ash at hurricane speeds. Ash and steam erupted vertically from the volcano's crater and continued for 9 hours.

The Mountain Blows its Top

Volcanic eruptions alter the surface of the Earth's lithosphere, the hard, outermost shell of the Earth.

Many eruptions have built Mount St. Helens' beautiful cone shape.  The May 18, 1980, eruption, however, dramatically changed the volcano's size and shape. It tore off the mountain's top and blasted a giant crater in its side.

Smaller eruptions have continued since 1980.   Mostly occurring on the bottom of the volcano's crater, each eruption squeezes up thick, pasty lava and sometimes spews out tephra.  In photograph number 11, look for the dome that has formed inside the crater. Slowly, the volcano is rebuilding itself into its former shape.

 Up in the Air

Volcanoes erupt materials into the atmosphere, the gases and water vapor that surround the Earth.

The eruption blasted ash and gases into the atmosphere.  Winds carried ash great distances.  The ash-covered truck shown here was parked 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Mount St. Helens. Two men who were camped nearby died, suffocating from hot volcanic ash. They were two of 57 known fatalities.

In Yakima, a city in eastern Washington, ash began to fall about an hour after the eruption.  It became so dark that lights were turned on all day.  Face masks were necessary when people went outside.  It took 10 weeks to haul away the ash from Yakima's streets, sidewalks, and roofs.

 Water, Rock, and Mud

The hydrosphere — the liquid water on and under the Earth's surface — can make volcanic eruptions more dangerous.

Before the May 18, 1980, eruption, the streams on Mount St. Helens were crystal clear.  After the eruption, streams were choked with rock and mud.  When water mixed with rock and mud, it created volcanic mudflows (also called lahars) that were able to move down the volcano's slopes.  On the steepest slopes, the mudflows traveled up to 144 kilometers per hour (90 miles per hour). Some of the mudflows were as high as a six-storied building!

 Fire and Ice

Ice and snow — the part of the Earth system called the cryosphere — can melt during a volcanic eruption.

Snow- and ice-capped volcanoes like Mount St. Helens are especially dangerous if they erupt. Much of the water in Mount St. Helens' mudflows came from snow and ice melted by the heat of the eruption.  These mudflows were as thick as wet cement and able to carry along almost anything that they picked up.   Eyewitnesses reported seeing mudflows carry everything from farm animals to a fully loaded logging truck.  Fortunately, when the mudlfow hit, no one was in the bus pictured here.

 Death and Recovery

The Earth's biosphere — the realm of all living things — is affected during a volcanic eruption.

The force of the eruption on Mount St. Helens blew down giant trees like they were match sticks.  Almost all of the animals that lived in these forests were killed as well.  Birds were particularly hard hit.   Some birds survived the eruption but died later because the insects and plants they ate had died.

Surprisingly, some plants and animals did survive.  Plants sprouted from roots that survived even though the plants' tops had been sheared off.  Animals such as gophers and ants survived in their underground homes.  Within a few weeks of the eruption deer, elk, and other animals moved in from nearby areas to take advantage.

How BIG are Volcanic Eruptions?

Every year about 60 volcanoes erupt, but most of the activity is pretty weak.  How do volcanologists measure how big an eruption is?  There is not any single feature that determines the “bigness”, but the following eruption magnitude scale – called the Volcanic Explosivity Index or VEI – is based on a number of things that can be observed during an eruption. According to this scale, really huge eruptions don't happen very often, luckily!

VEI Description Plume Height Volume Classification How often Example
0 non-explosive <100 m 1000s m3 Hawaiian daily Kilauea
1 gentle 100-1000 m 10,000s m3 Haw/Strombolian daily Stromboli
2 explosive 1-5 km 1,000,000s m3 Strom/Vulcanian weekly Galeras, 1992
3 severe 3-15 km 10,000,000s m3 Vulcanian yearly Ruiz, 1985
4 cataclysmic 10-25 km 100,000,000s m3 Vulc/Plinian 10's of years Galunggung, 1982
5 paroxysmal >25 km 1 km3 Plinian 100's of years St. Helens, 1981
6 colossal >25 km 10s km3 Plin/Ultra-Plinian 100's of years Krakatau, 1883
7 super-colossal >25 km 100s km3 Ultra-Plinian 1000's of years Tambora, 1815
8 mega-colossal >25 km 1,000s km3 Ultra-Plinian 10,000's of years Yellowstone, 2 Ma

Preparing for Volcanic Emergencies

Communication – Key to Saving Lives

Recent advances in volcano monitoring, new and refined volcano-hazard assessments, and better warning schemes have significantly improved our capability to warn of volcano hazards and impending eruptions.  Our volcano information and warnings, however, no matter how timely or precise, will reduce volcanic risk only if they are communicated effectively to a wide audience, especially to people who live and work in potentially hazardous areas and to emergency-management specialists.  We only need to remember the tragic consequence of the events at Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia, in 1985 that killed more than 23,000 people to know how critical it is for us to work closely with many people when planning for future volcanic emergencies and responding to current volcano threats.

Increasing Awareness of Volcano Hazards

In addition to carrying out specialized studies on volcanoes and hazards posed by them, participation in a wide variety of projects and activities intended to increase awareness of volcano hazards is necessary to minimize future consequences of volcano activity in the United States:

  • participate in volcano-emergency planning workshops and emergency-response exercises
  • convene international, regional, and local workshops focused on volcano-hazard issues
  • prepare educational materials with partners, including exhibits, fact sheets, booklets, video programs, and maps
  • collaborate with emergency-management specialists to develop effective warning schemes
  • meet with community leaders and residents wanting information about potentially dangerous volcanoes in their area
  • work with the news media and media producers
  • lead educational field trips to active and potentially dangerous volcanoes for the public, officials, local residents, educators, and students
  • work with educators and students through classroom presentations, teacher workshops, field trips, and volunteers

Eruption Warning and Real-Time Notifications

The best warning of a volcanic eruption is one that specifies when and where an eruption is most likely to occur and what type and size eruption should be expected.  Such accurate predictions are sometimes possible but still rare in volcanology.  The most accurate warnings are those in which scientists indicate an eruption is probably only hours to days away based on significant changes in a volcano's earthquake activity, ground deformation, and gas emissions.   Experience from around the world has shown that most eruptions are preceded by such changes over a period of days to weeks.A volcano may begin to show signs of unrest several months to a few years before an eruption.  In these cases, however, a warning that specifies when it might erupt months to years ahead of time are extremely rare.

People need real-time warnings of volcanic activity. Just as important as advance warning for saving lives and minimizing property damage is the real-time detection of a sudden eruption or lahar and immediate notification of the activity to the public and local, state, and federal emergency-management officials.

Volcanic ash spreads downwind

Lahars rush down valleys

Lava flows cover communities

Strategy of Volcano Warnings

System of Alert Levels in use for various volcanic areas in the United States:

The strategy that we use to provide volcano warnings in the United States involves a series of alert levels that correspond generally to increasing levels of volcanic activity.  As a volcano becomes increasingly active or as our monitoring data suggest that a given level of unrest is likely to lead to a significant eruption, we declare a corresponding higher alert level.  This alert level ranking thus offers the public and civil authorities a framework they can use to gauge and coordinate their response to a developing volcano emergency.

We currently use different alert levels (also referred to as status and condition levels) for providing volcano warnings and emergency information regarding volcanic unrest and eruptions.  These levels are different for Long Valley caldera in California and for volcanoes in Alaska, the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii for several reasons:

  • Volcanoes exhibit different patterns of unrest in the weeks to hours before they erupt
  • Communities, people, and economic activity are threatened by US volcanoes with different types of volcano hazards
  • US volcanoes are not monitored with the same level of intensity

Remember – be prepared and follow Volcano warnings!


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