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The Science Behind the Volcano

By: , Posted on: October 30, 2014

The Kīlauea Volcano in Hawaii is currently having the longest eruption ever-recorded in the world. Active since 1983, the volcano is causing damage and posing threats to the inhabitants of Hawaiʻi. But have you ever wondered what goes on when a volcano erupts? What is happening on the inside? Elsevier’s Earth Systems and Environmental Science Reference Module and Hazards and Disaster series is here to help! The following definition of key terms will get you started:


Acid Rain Any form of precipitation that has elevated levels of hydrogen ions and is unusually acidic (low pH)

Eruption column A plume rising above a volcanic vent, composed of material ejected during an explosive eruption; can attain heights of tens of kilometers and can last for many hours to days.

Fumarole Derived from the Latin, fumus, “smoke relating to a vent in the ground that produces volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen chloride

Lava An all-inclusive term for any magma once it is erupted from a volcano; rocks and deposits formed from lava can vary widely in texture and appearance depending on chemical composition, gas and (or) crystal content, eruption mode (effusive or explosive), and depositional environment.

Lava Dome short lava flows that cover only a few square kilometers, typically formed by low rate eruptions

Magma Molten rock that forms or is stored below the earth’s surface; contains variable amounts of dissolved gases (principally water vapor, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide) and crystals (principally aluminosilicates and oxides).

Phreatic Adjective of Greek origin (from phrear, “well”) relating to ground water. Commonly applied to explosive eruptions – triggered by interaction of water with magma or solidified but still-hot volcanic rock – that eject steam and fragments of preexisting solid rock, but not magma. “Phreatic” is synonymous with “steam-blast.”

Pyroclastic Term of Greek origin (from pyro, “fire”; klastos, “broken”) relating to fragmental materials formed by the shredding or fragmentation of molten or semimolten lava and (or) the shattering of preexisting solid rock (volcanic and other) during explosive eruptions, and to the volcanic deposits they form.

Tephra Any airborne pyroclastic material regardless of fragment size, shape, or composition ejected during explosive eruptions

Volcanic ash Pyroclastic fragments of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass smaller than 2 mm in size produced during explosive eruptions; the pyroclastic deposit formed by the accumulation of such fragments.

Volcanic glass Quenched lava that contains no visible or only a few submicroscopic crystals.

Volcano A mountain or hill formed by the accumulation of materials erupted through one or more openings (volcanic vents) in the earth’s surface; also refers to the vents themselves.

Volcano hazards Potentially damaging volcano-related processes and products that occur during or following eruptions. In quantitative hazards assessments, the probability of a given geographic area being affected by potentially destructive phenomena within a given period of time.

Volcano risk Relating to the adverse impacts of volcano hazards, generally involving the consideration of the general relation: risk=volcano hazard x vulnerability (to the given hazard) x value (what is at risk). In probabilistic risk assessments, the probability or likely magnitude of human and economic loss, calculated from the same relation.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data.

Research into volcanoes is of critical importance, nine of the 24 deadliest eruptions in history (dating to the year 79 A.D.) have occurred within the past century. While the 2010 eruption in Iceland caused marginal direct damage, it wreaked havoc on the air transportation system in Europe, causing thousands of flight cancellations and delays—devastating the airline industry economically. Elsevier’s Hazards and Disasters series and Earth Systems and Environmental Science Reference Module equips scientists with the knowledge necessary to be prepared for a predicted increase in natural disasters over the next several decades, which will continue to impact millions of lives and cause catastrophic financial damages.

Volcanic hazards risks coverVolcanic Hazards, Risks, and Disasters provides you with the latest scientific developments in volcano and volcanic research, including causality, impacts, preparedness, risk analysis, planning, response, recovery, and the economics of loss and remediation. It takes a geoscientific approach to the topic while integrating the social and economic issues related to volcanoes and volcanic hazards and disasters. Throughout the book case studies are presented of historically relevant volcanic and seismic hazards and disasters as well as recent catastrophes, such as Chile’s Puyehue volcano eruption in June 2011.

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