USGS

VOLCANOES

By Robert I. Tilling


Volcanoes destroy and volcanoes create. The catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, made clear the awesome destructive power of a volcano. Yet, over a time span longer than human memory and record, volcanoes have played a key role in forming and modifying the planet upon which we live. More than 80 percent of the Earth's surface--above and below sea level--is of volcanic origin. Gaseous emissions from volcanic vents over hundreds of millions of years formed the Earth's earliest oceans and atmosphere, which supplied the ingredients vital to evolve and sustain life. Over geologic eons, countless volcanic eruptions have produced mountains, plateaus, and plains, which subsequent erosion and weathering have sculpted into majestic landscapes and formed fertile soils.

Ironically, these volcanic soils and inviting terranes have attracted, and continue to attract, people to live on the flanks of volcanoes. Thus, as population density increases in regions of active or potentially active volcanoes, mankind must become increasingly aware of the hazards and learn not to "crowd" the volcanoes. People living in the shadow of volcanoes must live in harmony with them and expect, and should plan for, periodic violent unleashings of their pent-up energy.

This booklet presents a generalized summary of the nature, workings, products, and hazards of the common types of volcanoes around the world, along with a brief introduction to the techniques of volcano monitoring and research.

Drawing of Mount Vesusvius erupting in A.D. 79

On August 24, A.D. 79, Vesuvius Volcano suddenly exploded and destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Although Vesuvius had shown stir-rings of life when a succession`of earthquakes in A.D. 63 caused some damage, it had been literally quiet for hundreds of years and was considered "extinct." Its surface and crater were green and covered with vegetation, so the eruption was totally unexpected. Yet in a few hours, hot volcanic ash and dust buried the two cities so thoroughly that their ruins were not uncovered for nearly 1,700 years, when the discovery of an outer wall in 1748 started a period of modern archeology. Vesuvius has continued its activity intermittently ever since A.D 79 with numerous minor eruptions and several major eruptions occurring in 1631, 1794, 1872, 1906 and in 1944 in the midst of the Italian campaign of World War II.

In the United States on March 271980, Mount St. Helens Volcano in the Cascade Range, southwestern Washington, reawakened after more than a century of dormancy and provided a dramatic and tragic reminder that there are active volcanoes in the "lower 48" States as well as in Hawaii and Alaska.The catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, and related mudflows and flooding caused significant loss of life (57 dead or missing) and property damage lover $1.2 billion). Mount St. Helens is expected to remain intermittently active for months or years, possibly even decades.

Drawing of the Roman god VulcanThe word volcano comes from the little island of Vulcano in the Mediterranean Sea off Sicily. Centuries ago, the people living in this area believed that Vulcano was the chimney of the forge of Vulcan--the blacksmith of the Roman gods. They thought that the hot lava fragments and clouds of dust erupting from Vulcano came from Vulcan's forge as he beat out thunderbolts for Jupiter, king of the gods, and weapons for Mars, the god of war. In Polynesia the people attributed eruptive activity to the beautiful but wrathful Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, whenever she was angry or spiteful. Today we know that volcanic eruptions are not super natural but can be studied and interpreted by scientists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ Table of Contents ] [ Next ]



This page is <http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/volc/intro.html>
Maintained by John Watson
Last modified 1/31/97