A volcano is a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface. The process is called Volcanism and has been ongoing on Earth since the initial stages of its evolution over 4 billion years ago.
Volcanoes are Earth’s geologic architects. They’ve created more than 80 percent of our planet’s surface, laying the foundation that has allowed life to thrive. Their explosive force crafts mountains as well as craters. Lava rivers spread into bleak landscapes. But as time ticks by, the elements break down these volcanic rocks, liberating nutrients from their stony prisons and creating remarkably fertile soils that have allowed civilizations to flourish.
There are volcanoes on every continent, even Antarctica. Some 1,500 volcanoes are still considered potentially active around the world today; 161 of those—over 10 percent—sit within the boundaries of the United States.
But each volcano is different. Some burst to life in explosive eruptions, like the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and others burp rivers of lava in what’s known as an effusive eruption, like the 2018 activity of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. These differences are due to the chemistry driving the molten activity. Effusive eruptions are more common when the magma is less viscous, or runny, which allows gas to escape and the magma to flow down the volcano’s slopes. Explosive eruptions, however, happen when viscous molten rock traps the gasses, building pressure until it violently breaks free.