- Not to be confused with Volcano, California.
Volcanoes come in all shapes and sizes. Although the name evokes images of the conical mountain spewing ash and lava, such events are rare, and are probably best seen on the TV news rather than witnessed up close in person. However, many volcanoes around the world are tourist attractions, and are worth a visit.
There are hundreds of active volcanoes around the world, but many more that are extinct. One can still appreciate the awesome power of nature from extinct volcanoes, without the hazards that go with active ones. According to the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, the major volcano monitoring organization based in Washington, DC, volcanoes can be classified as follows:
- active if it has erupted within the last 10,000 years (less than a second in geological time!)
- dormant if it is active but not currently erupting
- extinct if it has not erupted for more than 10,000 years and does not show much activity, such as hot springs, fumes, earthquakes, etc.
Other organizations generally use the same terms, but may have somewhat different definitions. However the terms are defined, they are not precise; dormant volcanoes sometimes erupt, and it is not unknown for supposedly extinct volcanoes to come back to life.
There is a scale for the force of eruptions called the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). The main (though not the only) factor is the volume of ejecta, the amount of material spewed out. The scale is mostly logarithmic; a VEI-5 eruption produces at least 1 km3 of ejecta, VEI-6 10 km3, VEI-7 100 km3, and VEI-8 1000 km3. The 20th century had seven eruptions of VEI-5 or VEI-6, and dozens at VEI-4, but none of VEI-7 or above. There have been only two definite VEI-7 eruptions since the time the Roman Empire ceased being a Republic (plus one uncertain case), and the most recent VEI-8 event was over 26,000 years ago.
Supervolcanoes are the largest volcanoes on Earth, but are not easily recognizable as such. Many are so big that, for many years, even geologists did not appreciate that these features were volcanoes in their own right. Compared to these, the currently active volcanoes on earth are relatively quite small! Supervolcanoes are generally in the form of large calderas, which are giant volcanic depressions formed either by large explosive eruptions or quiet long-term drainage of magma, and they often have associated lava flows or domes.
Examples of supervolcanoes include Yellowstone in the United States, Toba in Indonesia, and Taupo in New Zealand. Most supervolcanoes have undergone unimaginably huge eruptions (VEI-7 or 8) in the geologic past; these are what created the huge caldera. For example, Mount Tambora in Indonesia is the only supervolcano known to have erupted in the last thousand years; its eruption in 1815 put out 160 cubic km (38 cubic miles) of ejecta. That was a VEI-7 event, considered relatively small for a supervolcano.
However, supervolcanoes erupt violently very infrequently, usually only once every few hundred thousand years. Hence, there is almost no reason to worry that Yellowstone, for example, will explode during your visit!
Throughout volcanic areas of the world, one may also encounter geothermal areas. These places are often, but not always, associated with volcanic activity. Hot springs, geysers, mud pools and fumaroles (steam/gas vents) are common scenic features in geothermal areas, and hot springs can be great places to take a dip. Countries such as Japan and Iceland are especially famous for hot spring baths. Geothermal areas are also an environmentally friendly source of energy, and Iceland takes advantage of this very well.
Yellowstone National Park is probably the best known example of a geothermal area, as molten magma lies not far beneath its 640,000 year-old caldera. New Zealand, with its volcanoes in the North Island, is also known for extensive geothermal areas.
If you are intending to venture into an area containing a highly active volcano, be aware that you are entering a potential hazard zone. Depending on the level of activity, the hazard zone may extend for several dozen kilometers, and there is the serious potential for pyroclastic flows and flying volcanic bombs, which are larger pieces of rocks thrown up by eruptions. Other associated hazards like volcanic ashfall and lahars (volcanic mudflows) can extend for hundreds of kilometers more.
Volcanic bombs can be larger than the size of a soccer ball – easily enough to kill a person. Pyroclastic flows are clouds of red-hot ash and other volcanic debris that rush downslope from their source vents. They are some of the most dangerous parts of volcanic eruptions, as the temperature inside a pyroclastic flow can reach 400–700°C (~750–1300°F) and they can reach speeds of up to 150 km/h (93 mph). Obviously, this means they can literally incinerate everything flammable in their path and then bury the area in hot ash. Ash can also be transported by air in vast quantities over a huge area. Also, volcanic ash tends to stop aircraft and vehicle engines, so transportation in the area may be restricted or disrupted. Where the volcano is covered by ice, this will melt, causing floods. Public safety authorities may order hazard areas evacuated and would normally prefer that the casual tourist stay well away, but authorities are slow to act in much of the world. This does not eliminate dangers. Unless you have some very genuine reasons for going to these places, the best advice is to stay away and watch it from the safety of your home on the TV news.
When active volcanoes are not erupting (in other words, simply dormant), many of them can be approached reasonably closely in safety. However, when visiting active volcanic areas, there are still plenty of hazards even in dormant volcanic areas. New lava flows may still be very hot for months or even years afterwards and may be only covered with a thin crust of solid rock. Old lava flows can be as sharp as broken glass, so wearing a good pair of shoes or hiking boots are a must. Gases may be seeping out of vents, poisonous enough to kill.
A lahar is like an avalanche or flash flood of old ash from an eruption that becomes mobile by rainfall, earthquake or collapsing crater lake. A lahar may occur without warning many years after an eruption that is fading from memory. A large lahar can travel many kilometers and can be as devastating as an eruption itself, sweeping away settlements and bridges and killing thousands of people. Unlike eruptions, which may give more obvious warning signs, lahars can happen with zero warning. Keep in mind lahar hazards during periods of heavy rainfall.
Even geothermal areas can be hazardous. Many of the hazards encountered in geothermal areas are similar to volcanic hazards, because both arise from similar geological mechanisms. Hot springs and mud pools can be boiling hot, acidic or downright poisonous, hence do not even try to take a dip or approach unless it is absolutely safe to do so. Geysers are a common feature of major geothermal areas, and can erupt hot water or mud unexpectedly. Landslides are also common, as even volcanic rock can become weakened over time with acidic fumes seeping out of fumaroles (steam/gas vents) or hot springs. Noxious gases may come out of vents or similar holes in the ground and may be concentrated in enclosed low-lying spaces such as caves, manholes, and pool enclosures. Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of volcanic activity, is notorious for this and can kill swiftly with little or no warning.
A selection of some of the more active and/or better known volcanoes in the world today. Some of these can still be explored from up close.
- Mount Cameroon The only volcano outside of Europe to have records of an eruption before the Common Era in 5 BC. It remains active today, with its most recent eruption in 2000.
- Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is Africa's tallest peak at 5895 m (19,340 ft). It has a series of concentric summit craters apparently less than 10,000 years old and may have last erupted less than 2000 years ago. The name Kilimanjaro means "shining mountain" in Swahili, no doubt due to the once-extensive glaciers which are unfortunately disappearing rapidly each year.
- Mount Nyiragongo in the far eastern D.R. Congo, near Goma and the Rwandan border. One of just four volcanoes in the world with a persistent lava lake, the others being Erta Ale (Ethiopia), Kilauea (Hawaii), and Mount Erebus (Antarctica). The volcano is usually accessed by overnight hike (8–10 hr up first day, hike down the following morning), with the night spent in tents on the rim of the caldera with stunning views of the lava lake and the surrounding region. Unfortunately, it is located in a conflict zone and access is occasionally blocked due to the presence of rebels & criminal gangs.
- Ol Doinyo Lengai ("Mountain of God" in the Masai tongue), in Tanzania, is the only volcano on Earth that erupts natrocarbonatite lava. This type of lava emerges black, cools to grey, and oxidizes to white.
- Barren Island is a volcanic island and the only active volcano in India. Day trips can be arranged from Port Blair. No additional permit is required to visit the island; however, it is not possible to set foot on the island, only to view it from the boat.
With 167 known active volcanoes, Indonesia is the world's most volcanic country by far.
- Krakatoa is an island in West Java province with several volcanoes on it which produced multiple explosions in 1883. The largest is estimated to have been equivalent to 200 megatons of TNT, about four times the largest H-bomb ever tested, and the sound was heard 5,000 km (3,100 mi) away. The dust cloud had worldwide effects; global temperatures dipped by over a degree. This was a VEI-6 event.
- Mount Agung is a highly visible volcano in the interior of Bali. "Agung" means "great" in Indonesian. The volcano is considered quite sacred by Balinese people, and its slopes are home to the beautiful temple complex of Besakih. Its last eruption, in 1963, was quite devastating.
- Mount Bromo in East Java is known for its unreal scenery, especially with Mount Semeru, Indonesia's third highest active volcano nearby.
- Mount Merapi is perhaps Indonesia's single most active volcano (no mean feat). It looms large over the major cities of Yogyakarta and Solo, and the very popular temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Merapi has erupted 68 times since formal record keeping began in the 16th century.
- Mount Rinjani in Lombok is Indonesia's second highest volcano with a stunning crater lake. For much of 2009 the summit of the mountain was closed to the public due to eruptive activity.
- Mount Tambora in Sumbawa is one for the truly adventurous. Only about 50 visitors a year make it to this very remote volcano. In 1814 Tambora was 4,200 m (13,800 ft) high. It erupted with such force (VEI-7) the following year that 1,400 m (4,600 ft) was lost from its top. That was much the largest eruption in recent history, about ten times more powerful than the Krakatoa eruption a few decades later. It put enough dust and ash into the atmosphere to cause a "volcanic winter" that affected most of the Northern hemisphere; livestock deaths and crop failures caused the worst famine of the century.
- Mount Aso on the island of Kyushu in Japan, is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world with the largest caldera.
- Mount Fuji in central Japan near Tokyo, is Japan's highest and most beautiful volcano. It is also the most climbed mountain in the world because so many people climb it to view the sunrise from its summit crater.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology lists 23 volcanoes as "active"; 21 of those have erupted in the last 600 years. Another 25 are listed as "potentially active" and 355 as "inactive".
- Mayon Volcano, near Legazpi City in the Philippines, described as the world's most perfect volcano cone. Mayon’s last fatal eruption was in 1993.
- Kamchatka, Russia's largest Pacific peninsula, has several active volcanoes and some hot springs and geysers
- El Teide in Tenerife, is the highest active volcano in the Canary Islands at 3715 m (12,188 ft). A flank vent at El Teide was observed erupting by Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1492.
- Nisyros in the Greek Dodecanese islands is mildly active with smoking fumaroles. It is possible to walk into the crater floor for a closer look.
- Santorini in the Aegean Sea, is probably Greece's most famous volcano because of its eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilization over 3,600 years ago. It is still active, for it last erupted in 1950 out of Nea Kameni ("New Burnt" in Greek), an island made up of lava flows in the middle of the caldera bay.
Iceland has many active volcanoes, among them Hekla, Katla and Askja. In Medieval times Hekla was thought to be a gateway to Hell. It has had five eruptions in the last 60 years and is regarded as unpredictable. The Eyjafjallajökull famously disrupted European air travel for days with an ash cloud released during an eruption in the year 2010.
- Vesuvius near Naples in Italy is an active (but presently "dormant") volcano. It has not been smoking since it last erupted in 1944, but it is still very closely monitored because of its seriously hazardous proximity to Naples, which is southern Italy's largest city. This is the volcano that buried the Roman city of Pompeii in ash in 79 CE.
- Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands of Italy and Mount Etna in Sicily are two of Italy's most active volcanoes. At 3,350 m (10,990 ft), Etna is Europe's highest volcano. Stromboli has been in near continuous activity since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks and has been billed as the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean".
North America and Caribbean
- Mount Baker in Washington State, USA, is one of the five major stratovolcanoes in the area that have produced over 200 eruptions in the last 12,000 years.
- Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, USA, is famous for its May 18, 1980 eruption. This was a VEI-5 event, one of the largest of the century. Since late 2004, it has been erupting once again, but not nearly as violently - this time, a new lava dome is slowly being extruded in its crater.
- Mount Hood, at a height of 11,239 ft (3,426 m) is the highest mountain in the state of Oregon and a major outdoor recreation site in the Pacific Northwest. Located about 50 mi (80 km) east-southeast of Portland, the mountain is visible from the city on clear days and usually forms the backdrop for the Portland skyline in postcards and photographs of the city.
- Mount Rainier, in Washington State, USA, at 14,410 ft (4,390 m), is the most prominent peak in the Cascade Range. The mountain stands nearly three miles higher than the lowlands to the west and one and one-half miles higher than the adjacent mountains. The volcano, which last erupted approximately 150 years ago, is encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice.
- Mount Redoubt, about 180 km (110 mi) southwest of Anchorage, is the largest active volcano in mainland Alaska.
- Popocatepetl, near Mexico City, often has a volcanic plume above its crater which is 5,450 m (17,880 ft) high. The name means "smoking mountain" in the native Nahuatl language.
- Saint-Pierre (Martinique) is a town that was wiped out by an eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902. Attractions today include a volcano museum and wreck diving around the many ships sunk by that eruption.
- Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat, previously considered dormant, began erupting again in 1995, forcing the closure of the southern half of the island (including its capital and airport in 1997). It is still active, though mostly a nuisance seeping lava and spewing ash into the air.
Canada has no active volcanoes and is thought to have had only about 50 eruptions in the past 10,000 years. However, the Canadian Rockies include many dormant volcanoes; geologically they are part of the same system that produces active volcanoes in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
South and Central America
- Cotopaxi in Ecuador, often misstated as being the highest volcano in the world (despite its elevation of 5,911 m (19,393 ft), it does not even make the top ten list of highest active volcanoes - see this list here), is still one of South America's most spectacular volcanoes.
- Arenal in Costa Rica, the youngest volcano of the country. Its eruptions were frequent until 2010, but now it is calm.
- Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala, near Antigua Guatemala.
- Volcan Atitlan, Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Toliman in Guatemala, on the southern shores of Lake Atitlán.
- Volcan Láscar in the Atacama Region of northern Chile.
- The Volcanoes of Concepción (active) and Maderas (dormant) that form the island of Ometepe , Nicaragua
- Kilauea in the Big Island of Hawaii, has been erupting continuously out of its flank vent, known as Pu'u O'o ("Hill of the O'o bird" in the native Hawai'ian language) since 1983.
- Mauna Loa, also in Hawaii, is the state's highest historically active volcano and is topped by the Moku'aweoeo Caldera. It is also the largest volcano by volume in the world. Don't be fooled by its gentle slopes - with its highest point at 4170m/13,683 ft), the altitude can be hard on inexperienced hikers and its summit is often covered in snow during the winter.
- Mauna Kea is the highest volcano in Hawaii at 4205 m (13,796 ft), and is pockmarked with cinder cones. Its high elevation is also a magnet for astronomers with their giant telescope facilities - and even skiers.
- Hale'akala ("House of the sun" in Hawai'ian), is the tallest volcano on the island of Maui, and is renowned for its erosional crater and the cinder cones nestled inside.
- Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe in Tongariro National Park. Ruapehu, New Zealand's highest volcano, has a crater lake that forms and fills when the volcano is not erupting.
- White Island is a volcanic island in the Bay of Plenty, southeast of Auckland, and the most active volcano in New Zealand. Organized tours go to the island.
- The town of Taupo is located next to New Zealand's largest lake, which is the caldera of a supervolcano. It had a VEI-7 eruption in 180 CE that produced red skies as far away as Rome and China. Around 25,000 BCE it had a VEI-8 blast.
Papua New Guinea
- Mount Tavurvur is a very active volcano right next to the city of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. It last erupted on 7 October 2006, shattering windows up to 12 km (7.5 mi) away and sending an ash plume 18,000 m (59,000 ft) into the stratosphere.
The following travel agencies specialize in volcano tourism.
- Volcano Adventure Indonesia [dead link], Sukapura, Indonesia, tel. +62-335-581439, +62-81319090225, . Tours to Mount Bromo and elsewhere in Indonesia.
- VolcanoDiscovery, Germany, tel. +49 2241-2080175, +30 2107522310, . This tour operator specializes in international volcanoes and one of its most important programs is for Indonesian volcanoes. The tours are trekking & photography tours with small groups and an intensive personal service. The tours are usually about 7–14 days.