Mount Fuji, an active stratovolcano in Japan that last erupted in 1707–08
Tavurvur, an active stratovolcano near Rabaul in Papua New Guinea

A stratovolcano, also known as a composite volcano,[1] is a tall, conical volcano built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice, and volcanic ash. Unlike shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and periodic, explosive eruptions. The lava that flows from stratovolcanoes typically cools and hardens before spreading far due to high viscosity. The magma forming this lava is often felsic, having high-to-intermediate levels of silica (as in rhyolite, dacite, or andesite), with lesser amounts of less-viscous mafic magma. Extensive felsic lava flows are uncommon, but have travelled as far as 15 km (9.3 mi).[2]

Stratovolcanoes are sometimes called "composite volcanoes" because of their composite layered structure built up from sequential outpourings of eruptive materials. They are among the most common types of volcanoes, in contrast to the less common shield volcanoes. Two famous stratovolcanoes are Krakatoa, best known for its catastrophic eruption in 1883 and Vesuvius, famous for its destruction of the towns Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D.



Cutaway diagram of subduction zone and an associated stratovolcano

Stratovolcanoes are common at subduction zones, forming chains along plate tectonic boundaries where oceanic crust is drawn under continental crust (Continental Arc Volcanism, e.g. Cascade Range, central Andes) or another oceanic plate (Island arc Volcanism, e.g. Japan, Aleutian Islands). The magma that forms stratovolcanoes rises when water trapped both in hydrated minerals and in the porous basalt rock of the upper oceanic crust, is released into mantle rock of the asthenosphere above the sinking oceanic slab. The release of water from hydrated minerals is termed "dewatering," and occurs at specific pressures and temperatures for each mineral, as the plate descends to greater depths. The water freed from the rock lowers the melting point of the overlying mantle rock, which then undergoes partial melting and rises due to its lighter density relative to the surrounding mantle rock, and pools temporarily at the base of the lithosphere. The magma then rises through the crust, incorporating silica-rich crustal rock, leading to a final intermediate composition (see Classification of igneous rock). When the magma nears the top surface, it pools in a magma chamber under or within the volcano. There, the relatively low pressure allows water and other volatiles (mainly CO2, SO2, Cl2, and H2O) dissolved in the magma to escape from solution, as occurs when a bottle of carbonated water is opened, releasing CO2. Once a critical volume of magma and gas accumulates, the obstacle (mass blockage) of the volcanic cone is overcome, leading to a sudden explosive eruption.[citation needed]


Cutaway diagram of a Composite volcano

In recorded history, explosive eruptions at subduction zone (convergent-boundary) volcanoes have posed the greatest hazard to civilizations.[3] Subduction-zone stratovolcanoes, like Mount St. Helens and Mount Pinatubo, typically erupt with explosive force: the magma is too stiff to allow easy escape of volcanic gases. As a consequence the tremendous internal pressures of the trapped volcanic gases remain in the pasty magma. Following the breaching of the magma chamber, the magma degasses explosively. Such an explosive process can be likened to shaking a bottle of carbonated water vigorously, and then quickly removing the cap. The shaking action nucleates the dissolution of CO2 from the liquid as bubbles, increasing the internal volume. The gases and water gush out with speed and force.[3]

Two Decade Volcanoes that erupted in 1991 provide examples of stratovolcano hazards. On June 15, Mount Pinatubo spewed ash 40 kilometres (25 mi) into the air and produced huge pyroclastic flows and mudflows that devastated a large area around the volcano. Pinatubo, located 90 km (56 mi) from Manila, had been dormant for 600 years before the 1991 eruption, which ranks as one of the largest eruptions in the 20th Century.[3] Also in 1991, Japan's Unzen Volcano, located on the island of Kyushu about 40 km (25 mi) east of Nagasaki, awakened from its 200-year slumber to produce a new lava dome at its summit. Beginning in June, repeated collapse of this erupting dome generated ash flows that swept down the mountain's slopes at speeds as high as 200 km/h (120 mph). Unzen is one of more than 75 active volcanoes in Japan; an eruption in 1792 killed more than 15,000 people — the worst volcanic disaster in the country's history.[3]

The 79 CE Plinian eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a stratovolcano looming adjacent to Naples, completely covered the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum with pyroclastic surge deposits. The death toll ranged between 10,000 and 25,000. Mount Vesuvius is recognized as one of the most dangerous volcanoes, jointly because of its potential for powerful explosive eruptions and the high population density of the area (around 3 million people) around its perimeter.

Climatic effects

As per the above examples, while the Unzen eruptions have caused deaths and considerable local damage in the historic past, the impact of the June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was global. Slightly cooler-than-usual temperatures were recorded worldwide and brilliant sunsets and sunrises were attributed to the particulates this eruption lofted high into the stratosphere. The aerosol that formed from the sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other gasses dispersed around the world. The SO2 mass in this cloud—about 22 million tons—combined with water (both of volcanic and stratospheric origin) formed droplets of sulfuric acid, blocking a portion of the sunlight from reaching the troposphere and ground. The cooling in some regions is thought to have been as much as 0.5 °C.[3] An eruption the size of Mount Pinatubo tends to affect the weather for a few years; the material injected into the stratosphere gradually drops into the troposphere where it is washed away by rain and cloud precipitation.

A similar, but extraordinarily more powerful phenomenon occurred in the cataclysmic April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia. The Mt. Tambora eruption is recognized as the most powerful eruption in recorded history. Its volcanic cloud lowered global temperatures by as much as 3.5 °C.[3] In the year following the eruption, most of the northern hemisphere experienced sharply cooler temperatures during the summer months. In parts of Europe and in North America, 1816 was known as "The Year Without a Summer," which caused a brief but bitter famine.


Apart from possibly affecting climate, volcanic clouds from explosive eruptions also pose a hazard to aviation safety.[3] For example, during the 1982 eruption of Galunggung in Java, British Airways Flight 9 flew into the ash cloud, suffering temporary engine failure and structural damage. During the past two decades, more than 60 airplanes, mostly commercial jetliners, have been damaged by in-flight encounters with volcanic ash. Some of these encounters have resulted in the power loss of all engines, necessitating emergency landings. Luckily, to date no crashes have happened because of jet aircraft flying into volcanic ash.[3] Ashfall is a threat to health when inhaled, and is also a threat to property with high enough accumulation. Greater than 30 cm (12 in) of accumulation is sufficient to collapse most buildings.


A mudflow from Mount St. Helens in the USA in March 1982.

Since the year A.D. 1600, nearly 300,000 people have been killed by volcanic eruptions.[3] Most deaths were caused by pyroclastic flows and mudflows, deadly hazards that often accompany explosive eruptions of subduction-zone stratovolcanoes. Pyroclastic flows are fast-moving, avalanche-like, ground-hugging incandescent mixtures of hot volcanic debris, ash, and gases that can travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). Approximately 30,000 people were killed by pyroclastic flows during the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean.[3] In March–April 1982, three explosive eruptions of El Chichón Volcano in the State of Chiapas, southeastern Mexico, caused the worst volcanic disaster in that country's history. Villages within 8 km (5.0 mi) of the volcano were destroyed by pyroclastic flows, killing more than 2,000 people.[3]

Mudflows (also called debris flows or lahars, an Indonesian term for volcanic mudflows) are mixtures of volcanic debris and water. The water usually comes from two sources: rainfall or the melting of snow and ice by hot volcanic debris. Depending on the proportion of water to volcanic material, mudflows can range from soupy floods to thick flows that have the consistency of wet cement.[3] As mudflows sweep down the steep sides of composite volcanoes, they have the strength and speed to flatten or bury everything in their paths. Hot ash and pyroclastic flows from the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano in Colombia, South America, melted snow and ice atop the 5,390-m-high Andean peak; the ensuing mudflows buried the city of Armero, killing 25,000 people.[3]

Volcanic bombs

Volcanic bombs are extrusive igneous rocks that range from the size of a book to small automobile, that are explosively ejected from stratovolcanoes during their peak eruptive phases. These bombs can travel over fifteen miles (20 km) away from the volcano and present a risk to buildings and people while traveling at very high speeds (hundreds of miles per hour or km/h) through the air. The bombs do not themselves explode on impact, but rather carry enough force so as to have destructive effects as if they exploded.


Lava flows from stratovolcanoes are generally not a significant threat to people because the highly viscous lava moves slowly enough for people to move out of the path of flow. The lava flows are more of a property threat.

However, not all stratovolcanoes have viscous lava. Mount Nyiragongo is dangerous because its magma has an unusually low silica content, making it quite fluid (even when comparing to Hawaiian lava) and having lower viscosity. Compounded by the very steep slope of Nyiragongo gives the lava the ability to flow at up to about 100 km/h (60 mph).

See also


  1. ^  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Geological Survey document "Principal Types of Volcanoes" (retrieved on 2009-01-19).
  2. ^ "Garibaldi volcanic belt: Garibaldi Lake volcanic field". Catalogue of Canadian volcanoes. Geological Survey of Canada. 2009-04-01. Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Geological Survey document "Plate tectonics and people" by Kious, W. Jacquelyne; Tilling, Robert I..

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • stratovolcano — (n.) coined in German (von Seebach, 1866), from strato , comb. form of stratus (see STRATUM (Cf. stratum)) + VOLCANO (Cf. volcano). So called for its composite structure …   Etymology dictionary

  • stratovolcano — ALASKA VOLCANO OBSERVATORY GLOSSARY also called a stratocone or composite cone A steep sided volcano, usually conical in shape, built of lava flows and fragmental deposits from explosive eruptions. GLOSSARY OF VOLCANIC TERMS A generally steep… …   Glossary of volcanic terms

  • stratovolcano — noun Etymology: New Latin stratum + English o + volcano Date: 1937 a volcano composed of explosively erupted cinders and ash with occasional lava flows …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • stratovolcano — strat·o·vol·ca·no (străt ō vŏl kāʹnō, strā tō ) n. pl. strat·o·vol·ca·nos A volcano composed of alternating layers of lava and ash.   [stratum + volcano.] * * * …   Universalium

  • stratovolcano — noun A tall conical volcano, composed of layers (or strata) of hardened lava, tephra and ash …   Wiktionary

  • stratovolcano —    A volcano that is constructed of alternating layers of lava and pyroclastic deposits, along with abundant dikes and sills. Viscous, acidic lava may flow from fissures radiating from a central vent, from which pyroclastics are ejected.… …   Glossary of landform and geologic terms

  • stratovolcano — [ˌstratəʊvɒl keɪnəʊ] noun (plural stratovolcanoes) a volcano built up of alternate layers of lava and ash …   English new terms dictionary

  • stratovolcano — strato·volcano …   English syllables

  • stratovolcano — /strætoʊvɒlˈkeɪnoʊ/ (say stratohvol kaynoh) noun a volcano consisting of layers of lava alternating with ash and pyroclastic rocks. Compare shield volcano. {strato (def. 2) + volcano} …  

  • stratovolcano — |stra]d.ō, rā] also rä] or rȧ]+ noun Etymology: New Latin stratum + English o + volcano; from its cone s being built up of successive layers of ash and lava : a volcano composed of explosively erupted cinders and ash with occasional lava flows… …   Useful english dictionary

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