The volcano Anak Krakatau erupting

Volcanoes are dramatic evidence of the powerful forces at work inside the Earth. Eruptions of ash, gas and lava destroy entire cities and kill large numbers of people.

Volcanoes also add nutrients to soils, creating perfect conditions for many crops. Some types of volcano make new sections of the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth. Without volcanoes and our planet's plates, the dry land we live on would not be renewed, and weathering and erosion by water, wind and ice would eventually carry it all into the oceans leaving Earth a water world.

There are three common types of volcano: composite volcanoes, often the most deadly; shield volcanoes, which are large but generally less violent; and cinder cones.

Image: The Indonesian volcano Anak Krakatau erupts at night (credit: Getty Images/Tom Pfeiffer/VolcanoDiscovery)


The volcano Anak Krakatau erupting Volcanoes

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A volcano is a rupture on the crust of a planetary mass object, such as the Earth, which allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Earth's volcanoes occur because the planet's crust is broken into 17 major, rigid tectonic plates that float on a hotter, softer layer in the Earth's mantle. Therefore, on Earth, volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. For example, a mid-oceanic ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates coming together. Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the crust's interior plates, e.g., in the East African Rift and the Wells Gray-Clearwater volcanic field and Rio Grande Rift in North America. This type of volcanism falls under the umbrella of "plate hypothesis" volcanism. Volcanism away from plate boundaries has also been explained as mantle plumes. These so-called "hotspots", for example Hawaii, are postulated to arise from upwelling diapirs with magma from the core–mantle boundary, 3,000 km deep in the Earth. Volcanoes are usually not created where two tectonic plates slide past one another.

Erupting volcanoes can pose many hazards, not only in the immediate vicinity of the eruption. One such hazard is that volcanic ash can be a threat to aircraft, in particular those with jet engines where ash particles can be melted by the high operating temperature; the melted particles then adhere to the turbine blades and alter their shape, disrupting the operation of the turbine. Large eruptions can affect temperature as ash and droplets of sulfuric acid obscure the sun and cool the Earth's lower atmosphere (or troposphere); however, they also absorb heat radiated up from the Earth, thereby warming the upper atmosphere (or stratosphere). Historically, so-called volcanic winters have caused catastrophic famines.

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