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National Geographic - How Volcanoes Form
April 30, 2009
A volcano is an opening, or rupture, in a planet's surface or crust, which allows hot, molten rock, ash, and gases to escape from below the surface. Volcanic activity involving the extrusion of rock tends to form mountains or features like mountains over a period of time.
Volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. A mid-oceanic ridge, for example the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has examples of volcanoes caused by "divergent tectonic plates" pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has examples of volcanoes caused by "convergent tectonic plates" coming together. By contrast, volcanoes are usually not created where two tectonic plates slide past one another. Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the Earth's crust (called "non-hotspot intraplate volcanism"), such as in the African Rift Valley, the Wells Gray-Clearwater volcanic field and the Rio Grande Rift in North America and the European Rhine Graben with its Eifel volcanoes.
Volcanoes can be caused by "mantle plumes". These so-called "hotspots" , for example at Hawaii, can occur far from plate boundaries. Hotspot volcanoes are also found elsewhere in the solar system, especially on rocky planets and moons.
Plate tectonics and hotspots
Map showing the divergent plate boundaries (OSR Oceanic Spreading Ridges) and recent sub aerial volcanoes.
Divergent plate boundaries
At the mid-oceanic ridges, two tectonic plates diverge from one another. New oceanic crust is being formed by hot molten rock slowly cooling and solidifying. The crust is very thin at mid-oceanic ridges due to the pull of the tectonic plates. The release of pressure due to the thinning of the crust leads to adiabatic expansion, and the partial melting of the mantle causing volcanism and creating new oceanic crust. Most divergent plate boundaries are at the bottom of the oceans, therefore most volcanic activity is submarine, forming new seafloor. Black smokers or deep sea vents are an example of this kind of volcanic activity. Where the mid-oceanic ridge is above sea-level, volcanic islands are formed, for example, Iceland.
Convergent plate boundaries
Subduction zones are places where two plates, usually an oceanic plate and a continental plate, collide. In this case, the oceanic plate subducts, or submerges under the continental plate forming a deep ocean trench just offshore. Water released from the subducting plate lowers the melting temperature of the overlying mantle wedge, creating magma. This magma tends to be very viscous due to its high silica content, so often does not reach the surface and cools at depth. When it does reach the surface, a volcano is formed. Typical examples for this kind of volcano are Mount Etna and the volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Hotspots are not usually located on the ridges of tectonic plates, but above mantle plumes, where the convection of the Earth's mantle creates a column of hot material that rises until it reaches the crust, which tends to be thinner than in other areas of the Earth. The temperature of the plume causes the crust to melt and form pipes, which can vent magma. Because the tectonic plates move whereas the mantle plume remains in the same place, each volcano becomes dormant after a while and a new volcano is then formed as the plate shifts over the hotspot. The Hawaiian Islands are thought to be formed in such a manner, as well as the Snake River Plain, with the Yellowstone Caldera being the part of the North American plate currently above the hotspot.
The most common perception of a volcano is of a conical mountain, spewing lava and poisonous gases from a crater at its summit. This describes just one of many types of volcano, and the features of volcanoes are much more complicated. The structure and behavior of volcanoes depends on a number of factors. Some volcanoes have rugged peaks formed by lava domes rather than a summit crater, whereas others present landscape features such as massive plateaus. Vents that issue volcanic material (lava, which is what magma is called once it has escaped to the surface, and ash) and gases (mainly steam and magmatic gases) can be located anywhere on the landform. Many of these vents give rise to smaller cones such as Puʻu ʻŌʻō on a flank of Hawaii's Kīlauea.
Other types of volcano include cryovolcanoes (or ice volcanoes), particularly on some moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune; and mud volcanoes, which are formations often not associated with known magmatic activity. Active mud volcanoes tend to involve temperatures much lower than those of igneous volcanoes, except when a mud volcano is actually a vent of an igneous volcano.