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How does a volcano erupt?

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A volcano erupts through the build-up and release of pressure, whether that pressure is of its underlying magma, water or both. This release can be explosive, as it was in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, or it can be slow and effusive, as it is in the ongoing formation of the Hawaiian islands.

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An eruption that is caused solely by pressures underneath the Earth is a magmatic eruption. In a phreatic eruption, underground water heated by magma forms compressed steam, fracturing and weakening the surrounding rock and ultimately resulting in an violent explosive eruption. A phreatomagmatic eruption is caused by the interaction of magma and water; as the water cools the magma, the resulting stress fractures destabilize the volcano, leading to an eruption.

Explosive eruptions are marked by the violent release of compressed gas, including steam and sulfuric compounds. An effusive eruption, on the other hand, contains little compressed gas and is marked by the gradual flow of lava to the surface. These are two extremes of a sliding scale, with rare Plinian and Ultra Plinian eruptions as the most explosive and continuous Hawaiian eruptions as the least. In general, the more frequent a volcanic eruption is, the less violent and explosive it is.

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