Geologists generally group volcanoes into four main kinds—cinder cones, composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes, and lava domes.
Cinder cones are the simplest type of volcano. They are built from particles and blobs of congealed lava ejected from a single vent. As the gas-charged lava is blown violently into the air, it breaks into small fragments that solidify and fall as cinders around the vent to form a circular or oval cone. Most cinder cones have a bowl-shaped crater at the summit and rarely rise more than a thousand feet or so above their surroundings. Cinder cones are numerous in western North America as well as throughout other volcanic terrains of the world.
In 1943 a cinder cone started growing on a farm near the village of Parícutin in Mexico. Explosive eruptions caused by gas rapidly expanding and escaping from molten lava formed cinders that fell back around the vent, building up the cone to a height of 1,200 feet. The last explosive eruption left a funnel-shaped crater at the top of the cone. After the excess gases had largely dissipated, the molten rock quietly poured out on the surrounding surface of the cone and moved downslope as lava flows. This order of events—eruption, formation of cone and crater, lava flow—is a common sequence in the formation of cinder cones.
During 9 years of activity, Parícutin built a prominent cone, covered about 100 square miles with ashes, and destroyed the town of San Juan. Geologists from many parts of the world studied Parícutin during its lifetime and learned a great deal about volcanism, its products, and the modification of a volcanic landform by erosion.
Some of the Earth’s grandest mountains are composite volcanoes—sometimes called stratovolcanoes. They are typically steep-sided, symmetrical cones of large dimension built of alternating layers of lava flows, volcanic ash, cinders, blocks, and bombs and may rise as much as 8,000 feet above their bases. Some of the most conspicuous and beautiful mountains in the world are composite volcanoes, including Mount Fuji in Japan, Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador, Mount Shasta in California, Mount Hood in Oregon, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington.
Most composite volcanoes have a crater at the summit which contains a central vent or a clustered group of vents. Lavas either flow through breaks in the crater wall or issue from fissures on the flanks of the cone. Lava, solidified within the fissures, forms dikes that act as ribs which greatly strengthen the cone.
The essential feature of a composite volcano is a conduit system through which magma from a reservoir deep in the Earth’s crust rises to the surface. The volcano is built up by the accumulation of material erupted through the conduit and increases in size as lava, cinders, ash, etc., are added to its slopes.
When a composite volcano becomes dormant, erosion begins to destroy the cone. As the cone is stripped away, the hardened magma filling the conduit (the volcanic plug) and fissures (the dikes) becomes exposed, and it too is slowly reduced by erosion. Finally, all that remains is the plug and dike complex projecting above the land surface—a telltale remnant of the vanished volcano.
An interesting variation of a composite volcano can be seen at Crater Lake in Oregon. From what geologists can interpret of its past, a high volcano—called Mount Mazama- probably similar in appearance to present-day Mount Rainier was once located at this spot. Following a series of tremendous explosions about 6,800 years ago, the volcano lost its top. Enormous volumes of volcanic ash and dust were expelled and swept down the slopes as ash flows and avalanches. These large-volume explosions rapidly drained the lava beneath the mountain and weakened the upper part. The top then collapsed to form a large depression, which later filled with water and is now completely occupied by beautiful Crater Lake. A last gasp of eruptions produced a small cinder cone, which rises above the water surface as Wizard Island near the rim of the lake. Depressions such as Crater Lake, formed by collapse of volcanoes, are known as calderas. They are usually large, steep-walled, basin-shaped depressions formed by the collapse of a large area over, and around, a volcanic vent or vents. Calderas range in form and size from roughly circular depressions 1 to 15 miles in diameter to huge elongated depressions as much as 60 miles long.
Shield volcanoes, the third type of volcano, are built almost entirely of fluid lava flows. Flow after flow pours out in all directions from a central summit vent, or group of vents, building a broad, gently sloping cone of flat, domical shape, with a profile much like that of a warrior’s shield. They are built up slowly by the accretion of thousands of highly fluid lava flows called basalt lava that spread widely over great distances, and then cool as thin, gently dipping sheets. Lavas also commonly erupt from vents along fractures (rift zones) that develop on the flanks of the cone. Some of the largest volcanoes in the world are shield volcanoes. In northern California and Oregon, many shield volcanoes have diameters of 3 or 4 miles and heights of 1,500 to 2,000 feet. The Hawaiian Islands are composed of linear chains of these volcanoes including Kilauea and Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii—two of the world’s most active volcanoes. The floor of the ocean is more than 15,000 feet deep at the bases of the islands. As Mauna Loa, the largest of the shield volcanoes (and also the world’s largest active volcano), projects 13,677 feet above sea level, its top is over 28,000 feet above the deep ocean floor.
In some eruptions, basaltic lava pours out quietly from long fissures instead of central vents and floods the surrounding countryside with lava flow upon lava flow, forming broad plateaus. Lava plateaus of this type can be seen in Iceland, southeastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and southern Idaho. Along the Snake River in Idaho, and the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, these lava flows are beautifully exposed and measure more than a mile in total thickness.
Volcanic or lava domes are formed by relatively small, bulbous masses of lava too viscous to flow any great distance; consequently, on extrusion, the lava piles over and around its vent. A dome grows largely by expansion from within. As it grows its outer surface cools and hardens, then shatters, spilling loose fragments down its sides. Some domes form craggy knobs or spines over the volcanic vent, whereas others form short, steep-sided lava flows known as “coulees.”
Volcanic domes commonly occur within the craters or on the flanks of large composite volcanoes. The nearly circular Novarupta Dome that formed during the 1912 eruption of Katmai Volcano, Alaska, measures 800 feet across and 200 feet high. The internal structure of this dome—defined by layering of lava fanning upward and outward from the center—indicates that it grew largely by expansion from within. Mont Pelée in Martinique, Lesser Antilles, and Lassen Peak and Mono domes in California are examples of lava domes. An extremely destructive eruption accompanied the growth of a dome at Mont Pelée in 1902. The coastal town of St. Pierre, about 4 miles downslope to the south, was demolished and nearly 30,000 inhabitants were killed by an incandescent, high-velocity ash flow and associated hot gases and volcanic dust.
Only two men survived; one because he was in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell and the other who somehow made his way safely through the burning city.