Reading: Types of Volcanoes

A volcano is a vent through which molten rock and gas escape from a magma chamber. Volcanoes differ in many features such as height, shape, and slope steepness. Some volcanoes are tall cones and others are just cracks in the ground (figure 1). As you might expect, the shape of a volcano is related to the composition of its magma.

Mount St. Helens before and after its 1980 eruption.

Figure 1. Mount St. Helens was a beautiful, classic, cone-shaped volcano. The volcano’s 1980 eruption blew more than 400 meters (1,300 feet) off the top of the mountain.

Composite Volcanoes

Composite volcanoes are made of felsic to intermediate rock. The viscosity of the lava means that eruptions at these volcanoes are often explosive (figure 2).

View of Mt. Fuji from a town at its feet.

Figure 2. Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, is a dormant composite volcano.

The viscous lava cannot travel far down the sides of the volcano before it solidifies, which creates the steep slopes of a composite volcano. Viscosity also causes some eruptions to explode as ash and small rocks. The volcano is constructed layer by layer, as ash and lava solidify, one upon the other (figure 3). The result is the classic cone shape of composite volcanoes.

The magma chamber is located below the lithosphere, the pipe leads from the chamber through the bedrock and the volcano to the vent, lava flow, and ash cloud. The volcano (on top of the bedrock) is made of alternating layers of ash and lava.

Figure 3. A cross section of a composite volcano reveals alternating layers of rock and ash: (1) magma chamber, (2) bedrock, (3) pipe, (4) ash layers, (5) lava layers, (6) lava flow, (7) vent, (8) lava, (9) ash cloud. Frequently there is a large crater at the top from the last eruption.

Shield Volcanoes

Shield volcanoes get their name from their shape. Although shield volcanoes are not steep, they may be very large. Shield volcanoes are common at spreading centers or intraplate hot spots (figure 4).

Photograph of Mauna Loa Volcano

Figure 4. Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii (in the background) is the largest shield volcano on Earth with a diameter of more than 112 kilometers (70 miles). The volcano forms a significant part of the island of Hawaii.

The lava that creates shield volcanoes is fluid and flows easily. The spreading lava creates the shield shape. Shield volcanoes are built by many layers over time and the layers are usually of very similar composition. The low viscosity also means that shield eruptions are non-explosive.

This Volcanoes 101 video from National Geographic discusses where volcanoes are found and what their properties come from:

Cinder Cones

Eruption of a cinder cone.

Figure 5. In 1943, a Mexican farmer first witnessed a cinder cone erupting in his field. In a year, Paricutín was 336 meters high. By 1952, it reached 424 meters and then stopped erupting.

Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano. A cinder cone has a cone shape, but is much smaller than a composite volcano. Cinder cones rarely reach 300 meters in height but they have steep sides. Cinder cones grow rapidly, usually from a single eruption cycle (figure 5). Cinder cones are composed of small fragments of rock, such as pumice, piled on top of one another. The rock shoots up in the air and doesn’t fall far from the vent. The exact composition of a cinder cone depends on the composition of the lava ejected from the volcano. Cinder cones usually have a crater at the summit.

Cinder cones are often found near larger volcanoes (figure 6).

The San Fransisco Mountain is near several other mountains. Elden Mountain is to its south. Sunset Crater is to its east. The Bonia Lava flow is at sunset crater.

Figure 6. This Landsat image shows the topography of San Francisco Mountain, an extinct volcano, with many cinder cones near it in northern Arizona. Sunset crater is a cinder cone that erupted about 1,000 years ago.

Lesson Summary

  • Composite, shield, cinder cones, and supervolcanoes are the main types of volcanoes.
  • Composite volcanoes are tall, steep cones that produce explosive eruptions.
  • Shield volcanoes form very large, gently sloped mounds from effusive eruptions.
  • Cinder cones are the smallest volcanoes and result from accumulation of many small fragments of ejected material.
  • An explosive eruption may create a caldera, a large hole into which the mountain collapses.


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