What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?

wiseGEEK Writer

There are four different types of volcanoes. A volcano is categorized both by formation and appearance. Different types of volcanoes also indicate the types of expected eruptions. The different types of volcanoes are: composite (or stratovolcanoes), shield, cinder cones and spatter cones. Throughout the world, one can see pictures of the four types of volcanoes, each type indicative of the active underground world we often view as static.

Layers of rock and lava form composite volcanoes.
Layers of rock and lava form composite volcanoes.

Layers, or strata, of rock and lava form the composite or stratovolcanoes. These volcanoes come in a number of shapes. A composite volcano like Mt. Rainier resembles a helmet. The sides of this type of volcano are usually steep, some reaching a pointy peek at the top. Mt. St. Helens, also in Washington, and Mt. Shasta in Northern California are both composites. As well, the recognizable Mt. Fuji in Japan is one of the largest composites in the world.

Composite volcanoes release lava and rock when they erupt.
Composite volcanoes release lava and rock when they erupt.

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The composite volcano, when dormant, is generally a beautiful and impressive mountain. However, eruptions are particularly intense. As magma rises to the eruption point, it tends to get clogged due to high viscosity. The pressure needed to force the magma out of the volcano is huge, and the result is an explosion of both rock and lava. It is quite dangerous to witness such an eruption up close.

Identifying a type of volcano helps predict the kind of eruption to expect from it.
Identifying a type of volcano helps predict the kind of eruption to expect from it.

Shield volcanoes are also enormous. However, they differ from the stratovolcanoes since they are made of numerous layers of flowing lava. Hot spots may occur far from the central vent of the volcano.

The lava of a spatter cone volcano has a continuous flow.
The lava of a spatter cone volcano has a continuous flow.

Shields erupt frequently, but tend not to be highly explosive. These are some of the best volcano eruptions to witness at a relatively close, but still safe, range, since lava spray is uncommon. Both Mauna Loa and Kilauea in Hawaii are examples of the shield volcano. Shields also form on the ocean floor, gradually building height through a steady stream of magma.

Cinder cones are likewise relatively gentle in eruption. They tend to occur in mountain ranges with other types of volcanoes. A central vent forms a volcano made up of lava fragments. Cinders grow quickly but tend not to exceed about 800 feet (243.84m) in height. Occasionally, cinders form on ground with no known history of volcanic activity. In 1934, Paricutín erupted out of a Mexican cornfield and in approximately five days, grew to 300 feet (91.44m) tall.

Puʻu ʻŌʻō, pronounced poo-oo, is a Hawaiian spatter cone that has produced a continuous flow of lava since 1983. Occasional eruptions have been as high as 1500 feet (457.2m). The lava flow tends to be low in viscosity, and readily moves down the cone to cover the surrounding area. The Hawaiian volcano has caused the loss of a great deal of usable land and roads due to the constant flow. The lava tends to come down from the initial eruption in spattered formations, making it dangerous to come too close. While restricting access to some of the highways, Puʻu ʻŌʻō has added 544 acres of land to Hawaii’s main island.

One further classification of volcanoes is when geologists refer to a volcano as complex. A complex volcano can be combinations of any of the above volcanoes, but are primarily classified by the fact that they have at least two vents, often erupting in quite different ways.

Lava, ash, and gases are ejected through a volcano vent.
Lava, ash, and gases are ejected through a volcano vent.

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Discussion Comments


i would like some descriptions on spatters.


i would very much like to go to see a volcano one day but it costs so freakin much! like how am i supposed to cook my chicken over the hot magma when it costs as much as the plane does! Jeez, louise. i might as well by one of those cheap cars and drive myself there then hike up it for the same price! peace.


I have hiked about 7 miles round trip on the lava rock of the Big Island's volcano. It was an unique experience. The first part of the walk was signed with markers on the ground, but once they stopped, we were on our own. A group of us just continued toward the volcano's vent, which you could see clearly since the steam was coming out of it. Lava of course is completely black, but in the sun different parts were glistening in cobalt blue or gold, I guess it depended on the mineral content. There were warning signs around regarding the danger of coming too close to the vent. It is not healthy for the lungs since the steam contains particles that are detrimental to one's health. The lava itself is very brittle and it was formed in all kind of unique shapes, twisting and turning as it was coming down the mountain.

You cannot count on that hike, since this is an active volcano and it is monitored constantly for any kind of activity. I went again, about 6 months after my initial hike, but the road was closed, since the area was unstable, according to the park rangers.

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