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Volcanoes are one of Earth’s most terrifying and exhilarating spectacles. These hissing vents in the ground, shooting sparks and oozing molten rock that can reach temperatures of more than 2000°F, are the closest we’ve ever gotten to the churning engine that keeps our planet running

Volcano Facts

  • The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 propelled ash into the stratosphere to a height equivalent to 30 Sears Towers.
  • The way volcanic aerosols reflect light produces vivid red sunsets. The red skies in Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting The Scream are now thought to accurately reflect the eerie twilights seen in Norway for months after Krakatoa’s eruption almost 7,000 miles away.
  • Worldwide, some half a billion people make their homes near volcanoes that have erupted before, and could again.

Volcano Images

This exhibition and its national tour were developed by The Field Museum, Chicago

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Pu’u ‘O’o Cinder Cone

Pu’u ‘O’o is a classic cinder-and-spatter volcanic cone on Kilauea, Hawaii.

Expanding gases in the lava fountain tear the liquid rock into irregular globs that fall back to earth, forming a heap around the vent.

© United States Geological Survey; Photo by G.E. Ulrich ×


Encircling the Pacific Ocean is a 25,000 mile horse-shoe shaped arc called the "Ring of Fire", where more than 75 percent of the world's volcanoes can be found. Volcanoes are caused by subduction: when one tectonic plate descends beneath another. During subduction, magma from the earth's mantle can rise and ultimately erupt as a volcano.

© United States Geological Survey ×


This photo of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 shows an ash cloud from pyroclastic flow rising through the cloud layer.

© USGS; Photo by Jim Vallance ×


Beneath Yellowstone is a hotspot: an enormous underground magma chamber. Its heat is the source of Old Faithful and all the other geysers in the park. Some call Yellowstone a “supervolcano;” though while it may blow one day, an eruption of this size would give plenty of warning.

© National Park Service ×


Most "shield volcanoes" erupt a runny type of lava that cools into gentle slopes that form the volcano's shield shape. Hawaiian volcanoes erupt runny, flowing lava called pahoehoe (pah-HOY-hoy) that flows in long, ropy puddles across the landscape.

© Martin Rietze/AGE Fotostock ×


An explosive eruption can release millions of tons of ash that linger in the atmosphere and on the ground for years. It can collapse roofs, damage machinery, and cause health problems. Ash fall has made much of the Caribbean island of Montserrat uninhabitable since its Soufrière Hills volcano started erupting regularly in 1995.

© AP Photo/Wayne Fenton ×