During an episode of activity, a volcano commonly displays a distinctive pattern of behavior. Some mild eruptions merely discharge steam and other gases, whereas other eruptions extrude quantities of lava. The most spectacular eruptions consist of violent explosions that blast great clouds of gas-laden debris into the atmosphere.
The type of volcanic eruption is often labeled with the name of a well-known volcano where characteristic behavior is similar—hence the use of such terms as “Strombolian,” “Vulcanian,” “Vesuvian,” “Pelean,” “Hawaiian,” and others. Some volcanoes may exhibit only one characteristic type of eruption during an interval of activity—others may display an entire sequence of types.
In a “Strombolian”-type eruption observed during the 1965 activity of Irazu Volcano in Costa Rica, huge clots of molten lava burst from the summit crater to form luminous arcs through the sky. Collecting on the flanks of the cone, lava clots combined to stream down the slopes in fiery rivulets.
In contrast, the eruptive activity of Parícutin Volcano in 1947 demonstrated a “Vulcanian”-type eruption, in which a dense cloud of ash-laden gas explodes from the crater and rises high above the peak. Steaming ash forms a whitish cloud near the upper level of the cone.
In a “Vesuvian” eruption, as typified by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in A.D. 79, great quantities of ash-laden gas are violently discharged to form cauliflower-shaped cloud high above the volcano.
In a “Peléan” or “Nuée Ardente” (glowing cloud) eruption, such as occurred on the Mayon Volcano in the Philippines in 1968, a large quantity of gas, dust, ash, and incandescent lava fragments are blown out of a central crater, fall back, and form tongue-like, glowing avalanches that move downslope at velocities as great as 100 miles per hour. Such eruptive activity can cause great destruction and loss of life if it occurs in populated areas, as demonstrated by the devastation of St. Pierre during the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée on Martinique, Lesser Antilles.
“Hawaiian” eruptions may occur along fissures or fractures that serve as linear vents, such as during the eruption of Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii in 1950; or they may occur at a central vent such as during the 1959 eruption in Kilauea Iki Crater of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii. In fissure-type eruptions, molten, incandescent lava spurts from a fissure on the volcano’s rift zone and feeds lava streams that flow downslope. In central-vent eruptions, a fountain of fiery lava spurts to a height of several hundred feet or more. Such lava may collect in old pit craters to form lava lakes, or form cones, or feed radiating flows.
“Phreatic” (or “steam-blast”) eruptions are driven by explosive expanding steam resulting from cold ground or surface water coming into contact with hot rock or magma. The distinguishing feature of phreatic explosions is that they only blast out fragments of preexisting solid rock from the volcanic conduit; no new magma is erupted. Phreatic activity is generally weak, but can be quite violent in some cases, such as the 1965 eruption of Taal Volcano, Philippines, and the 1975-76 activity at La Soufrière, Guadeloupe (Lesser Antilles).
The most powerful eruptions are called “Plinian” and involve the explosive ejection of relatively viscous lava. Large plinian eruptions—such as during 18 May 1980 at Mount St. Helens or, more recently, during 15 June 1991 at Pinatubo in the Philippines—can send ash and volcanic gas tens of miles into the air. The resulting ash fallout can affect large areas hundreds of miles downwind. Fast-moving deadly pyroclastic flows (“nuées ardentes”) are also commonly associated with plinian eruptions.