What kinds of hazards are associated with volcanic eruptions?

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Evacuation sign at Mt. Rainier. Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
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U.S. Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program FAQs:

"Debris flows, or lahars, are slurries of muddy debris and water caused by mixing of solid debris with water, melted snow, or ice. Lahars destroyed houses, bridges, and logging trucks during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and have inundated other valleys around Cascade volcanoes during prehistoric eruptions. Lahars at Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia, in 1985, killed more than 23,000 people. At Mount Rainier, lahars have also been produced by major landslides that apparently were neither triggered nor accompanied by eruptive activity. Lahars can travel many tens of miles in a period of hours, destroying everything in their paths.

Tephra (ash and coarser debris) is composed of fragments of magma or rock blown apart by gas expansion. Tephra can cause roofs to collapse, endanger people with respiratory problems, and damage machinery. Tephra can clog machinery, severely damage aircraft, cause respiratory problems, and short out power lines up to hundreds of miles downwind of eruptions. Explosions may also throw large rocks up to a few miles. Falling blocks killed people at Galeras Volcano in Colombia in 1992, and at Mount Etna, Italy, in 1979.

Pyroclastic surges and flows are hot, turbulent clouds of tephra (known as surges), or dense, turbulent mixtures of tephra and gas (known as flows). Pyroclastic flows and surges can travel more than a hundred miles per hour and incinerate or crush most objects in their path. Though most extend only a few miles, a pyroclastic surge at Mount St. Helens in 1980 extended 18 miles (28 km) and killed 57 people. Pyroclastic surges at El Chichón volcano in Mexico in 1982 killed 2000 people, and pyroclastic flows at Mount Unzen, Japan, in June, 1991, killed 43 people. Speeding vehicles cannot outrun a pyroclastic flow or surge.

Lava flows erupted at explosive stratovolcanoes like those in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are typically slow-moving, thick, viscous flows. Kilauea volcano on the Island of Hawaii has produced thin, fluid lava flows throughout its history, and almost continuously since 1983. Lava flows destroyed a visitor center at Kilauea in 1989 and overran the village of Kalapana on the volcano's southeast flank in 1991."

Learn More

  • Types of Volcano Hazards (Webpage), U.S. Geological Survey
    A more in-depth overview of each of the hazards posed by volcanoes, including general impacts, pictures, and case studies.
  • Volcano Hazards Program (Website), U.S. Geological Survey
    Comprehensive website with information on volcanic hazards, eruption forecasts, monitoring, and more.
  • Volcanic Ash Impacts & Mitigation (Website), U.S. Geological Survey
    Website focusing specifically on the hazards caused by volcanic ash, which can affect areas far from the volcano itself. Topics include effects on buildings, transportation, power supply, health, agriculture, water, and communications.
  • Investigating Volcanic Landslide Hazards (Case Study), American Geosciences Institute
    Case study demonstrating how modern surveying methods are used to assess volcanic landslide and debris flow hazards