Volcanic Violence
PARTS Of THIS PAGE POSTED 2 JAN. 1997; UPDATED OCT. 2004

1. Mount St. Helens: Back?

2. How volcanoes work

3. Science of prediction

4. Volcanic landscapes

5. Ultimate volcano

6. Ecology after the eruption

7. The youngest mountain

The caldera around Crater Lake, Oregon, formed during the largest known eruption in the Cascades, from 7,000 years ago. Photo: W.E. Scott, USGS

Most of Earth's surface -- above water and below -- was formed by volcanic activity.

Volcanic planet
Ring of cliffs surrounds lake.Volcanoes don't get enough credit for reshaping the face of planet Earth. Volcanism is the rule rather than the exception: About 80 percent of Earth's surface -- seafloor and land -- originated as a flow of molten rock from deep inside earth.

The caldera around Crater Lake, Oregon, formed during the largest known eruption in the Cascades, from 7,000 years ago. Photo: W.E. Scott, USGS

Here are some of the marks of volcanoes on the landscape:

Calderas are more or less circular depressions surrounded by steep cliffs. Calderas form when a magma chamber spews out its magma, and the mountain above it collapses.

Large cones with steam wafting over edges.Mount Bromo, in Java, Indonesia, formed a ring-shaped caldera, part of which is visible in the distance at the upper right. The two cones in the center are forming inside the caldera. The cone at left is emitting sulfurous steam. Photo courtesy © David Tenenbaum

Shield volcanoes are born from multiple vents that emit flowing (not exploding) lava. Mauna Loa on Hawaii, standing 10 kilometers from ocean floor to summit, is a classic shield volcano. Shield volcanoes are rare because they form over an oceanic hot spot, not at a subduction zone.

Brilliant orange lava beneath crackly crust.On the flanks of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, lava flows to the ocean, forming new land. The "ropy" surface forms as the lava surface cools but hot lava continues flowing inside. Photo courtesy © David Tenenbaum

Seamounts are underwater volcanoes that appear over a mid-ocean ridge or a hot spot. The Loihi seamount near Hawaii, the world's most active volcano, is expected to reach the surface in about 50,000 years. Loihi is more evidence that the Hawaiian islands were formed by volcanoes. As the oceanic plate has drifted northwest for millions of years, volcanoes mark where its passage over a magma pipe. As the plate drifts, older volcanoes die in the northwest and newer ones (like Loihi) forms in the southeast. Eventually the northwestern islands erode back into the sea.

Black, round rocks found on ocean floor.Ocean floors are formed at the mid-oceanic ridges, where massive flows of lava ooze out and spread. The ocean floors are, in effect, slow-motion conveyor belts, moving from the mid-ocean toward the continents, where they dive underground and disappear (often feeding volcanoes like Mount St. Helens in the process).

These pillow basalts either erupted beneath water or flowed into water. The pillow was then lifted above water by tectonic plate movement. Photo: USGS

Pillow lava forms during a slow flow of lava into water. As the outside of the flow cools, it hardens, and the structure inflates due to the entry of hotter, more fluid lava. Pillow lava is a sure sign that an area was once under water.

Hot springs and geysers often get their energy from magma. Old Faithful geyser, at Yellowstone National Park, erupts about every 65 minutes, sending water up to 60 meters into the air with a mighty roar. Yellowstone spewed 240 cubic miles of rock 600,000 years ago, forming a huge caldera.

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