Volcanic eruptions

In earth sciences and studies of natural disasters or hazards, a volcanic eruption is when material from below the earth's or even a planet's crust is expelled relatively rapidly. Eruptions rates can vary from slow and creeping to rapid and highly explosive.


Tuvurvur volcano - part of Rabaul Caldera –– Papua New Guinea. image: Taro Taylor/wikipedia

During a volcanic eruption, lava, tephra (ash, lapilli, volcanic bombs and blocks), and various gases are expelled from a volcanic vent or fissure. 

Several types of volcanic eruptions have been distinguished by volcanologists. These are often named after famous volcanoes where that type of behavior has been observed. 

Not all volcanoes erupt the same way

Some volcanoes may exhibit only one characteristic type of eruption during a period of activity, while others may display an entire sequence of types all in one eruptive series.

How volcanoes erupt

Volcanic eruptions arise through three main mechanisms:

  • Gas release under decompression causing magmatic eruptions.
  • Thermal contraction from chilling on contact with water causing phreatomagmatic eruptions.
  • Ejection of entrained particles during steam eruptions causing phreatic eruptions (sudden heating of steam or mud).

There are two types of eruptions in terms of activity:

Explosive eruptions are characterized by gas-driven explosions that propels magma and tephra 

 Effusive eruptions, are characterized by the outpouring of lava without significant explosive eruption.

  •  Magmatic eruptions
    • Hawaiian
    • Strombolian
    • Vulcanian
    • Peléan
    • Plinian
  • Phreatomagmatic eruptions ( Greek phrear, phreat- meaning "well" or "spring" + magma, meaning water + magma)
    • Surtseyan
    • Submarine
    • Subglacial
  • Phreatic eruptions ( as a result of steam build up)

Hawaiian eruptions

 are a type of volcanic eruption, named after the Hawaiian volcanoes with which this eruptive type is hallmark. Hawaiian eruptions are the calmest types of volcanic events, characterized by the effusive eruption of very fluid basalt-type lavas with low gaseous content.

Diagram of a Hawaiian eruption. (key: 1. Ash plume 2. Lava fountain 3. Crater 4. Lava lake 5. Fumaroles 6. Lava flow 7. Layers of lava and ash 8. Stratum 9. Sill 10. Magma conduit 11. Magma chamber 12. Dike). image: wikipedia

Two kinds of lava

Pahoehoe lava is a relatively smooth lava flow that can be billowy or ropey. They can move as one sheet, by the advancement of "toes," or as a snaking lava column. A'a lava flows are denser and more viscous then pahoehoe, and tend to move slower. 


Volcanoes known to have Hawaiian activity include:

  • Pu'u O'o, a parasitic cinder cone located on Kilauea on the island of Hawaiʻi which has been erupting continuously since 1983. The eruptions began with a 6 km (4 mi)-long fissure-based "curtain of fire" on 3 January. These gave way to centralized eruptions on the site of Kilauea's east rift, eventually building up the still active cone.
  • Emperor seamount chain.
  • Mount Etna, Italy.
  • Mount Mihara in 1986

Strombolian eruptions 

are a type of volcanic eruption, named after the volcano Stromboli, which has been erupting continuously for centuries.  Strombolian eruptions are driven by the bursting of gas bubbles within the magma.

Diagram of a Strombolian eruption. (key: 1. Ash plume 2. Lapilli 3. Volcanic ash rain 4. Lava fountain 5. Volcanic bomb 6. Lava flow 7. Layers of lava and ash 8. Stratum 9. Dike 10. Magma conduit 11. Magma chamber 12. Sill). image: wikipedia


Volcanoes known to have Strombolian activity include:

  • Parícutin, Mexico, which erupted from a fissure in a cornfield in 1943. Two years into its life, pyroclastic activity began to wane, and the outpouring of lava from its base became its primary mode of activity. Eruptions ceased in 1952, and the final height was 424 m (1,391 ft). This was the first time that scientists are able to observe the complete life cycle of a volcano.
  • Mount Etna, Italy, which has displayed Strombolian activity in recent eruptions, for example in 1981, 1999,  2002-2003, and 2009. 
  • Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the southernmost active volcano in the world, having been observed erupting since 1972. Eruptive activity at Erebus consists of frequent Strombolian activity. 
  • Stromboli itself. The namesake of the mild explosive activity that it possesses has been active throughout historical time; essentially continuous Strombolian eruptions, occasionally accompanied by lava flows, have been recorded at Stromboli for more than a millennium

Vulcanian eruptions

are a type of volcanic eruption, named after the volcano Vulcano, which means the word Volcano.  It was named so following Giuseppe Mercalli's observations of its 1888-1890 eruptions. 

1. Ash plume 2. Lapilli 3. Lava fountain 4. Volcanic ash rain 5. Volcanic bomb 6. Lava flow 7. Layers of lava and ash 8. Stratum 9. Sill 10. Magma conduit 11. Magma chamber 12. Dike. image: Sémhur /wikipedia

 In Vulcanian eruptions, highly viscous magma within the volcano make it difficult for vesiculate gases to escape. Similar to Strombolian eruptions, this leads to the buildup of high gas pressure, eventually popping the cap holding the magma down and resulting in an explosive eruption.

However, unlike Strombolian eruptions, ejected lava fragments are not aerodynamic; this is due to the higher viscosity of Vulcanian magma and the greater incorporation of crystalline material broken off from the former cap.

Volcanoes that have exhibited Vulcanian activity include:

  • Sakurajima, Japan has been the site of Vulcanian activity near-continuously since 1955.
  • Tavurvur, Papua New Guinea, one of several volcanoes in the Rabaul Caldera.
  • Irazú Volcano in Costa Rica exhibited Vulcanian activity in its 1965 eruption. 

Peléan eruptions

Sometimes known as or nuée ardente are a type of volcanic eruption, named after the volcano Mount Pelée in Martinique, the site of a massive Peléan eruption in 1902 that is one of the worst natural disasters in history. 

In Peléan eruptions, a large amount of gas, dust, ash, and lava fragments are blown out the volcano's central crater,  driven by the collapse of rhyolite, dacite, and andesite lava dome collapses that often create large eruptive columns.

Diagram of Peléan eruption. (key: 1. Ash plume 2. Volcanic ash rain 3. Lava dome 4. Volcanic bomb 5. Pyroclastic flow 6. Layers of lava and ash 7. Stratum 8. Magma conduit 9. Magma chamber 10. Dike) image: Sémhur/wikipedia

The mechanics of a Peléan eruption are very similar to that of a Vulcanian eruption, except that in Peléan eruptions the volcano's structure is able to withstand more pressure, hence the eruption occurs as one large explosion rather than several smaller ones.

Volcanoes known to have Peléan activity include:

  • Mount Pelée, Martinique. The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée completely devastated the island, destroying the town of St. Pierre and leaving only 3 survivors. The eruption was directly preceded by lava dome growth. 
  • Mayon Volcano, the Philippines most active volcano. It has been the site of many different types of eruptions, Peléan included. Approximately 40 ravines radiate from the summit and provide pathways for frequent pyroclastic flows and mudslides to the lowlands below. Mayon's most violent eruption occurred in 1814 and was responsible for over 1200 deaths. 
  • The 1951 Peléan eruption of Mount Lamington. Prior to this eruption the peak had not even been recognized as a volcano. Over 3,000 people were killed, and it has become a benchmark for studying large Peléan eruptions

Plinian eruptions

Plinian eruptions (or Vesuvian) are a type of volcanic eruption, named for the historical eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 of Mount Vesuvius that buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and specifically for its chronicler Pliny the Younger.

Diagram of a Plinian eruption. (key: 1. Ash plume 2. Magma conduit 3. Volcanic ash rain 4. Layers of lava and ash 5. Stratum 6. Magma chamber) . image: Sémhur /wikipedia

The process powering Plinian eruptions starts in the magma chamber, where dissolved volatile gases are stored in the magma. The gases vesiculate and accumulate as they rise through the magma conduit. These bubbles agglutinate and once they reach a certain size (about 75% of the total volume of the magma conduit) they explode. The narrow confines of the conduit force the gases and associated magma up, forming an eruptive column.

These massive eruptive columns are the distinctive feature of a Plinian eruption, and reach up 2 to 45 km into the atmosphere. The densest part of the plume, directly above the volcano, is driven internally by gas expansion. As it reaches higher into the air the plume expands and becomes less dense, convection and thermal expansion of volcanic ash drive it even further up into the stratosphere. At the top of the plume, powerful prevailing winds drive the plume in a direction away from the volcano.

Plinian eruptions are similar to both Vulcanian and Strombolian eruptions, except that rather than creating discrete explosive events, Plinian eruptions form sustained eruptive columns. They are also similar to Hawaiian lava fountains in that both eruptive types produce sustained eruption columns maintained by the growth of bubbles that move up at about the same speed as the magma surrounding them

source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_eruption