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Kids ask: Why do volcanoes explode?
By Hope Babowice | Columnist

USGS photo of a volcano for Lake Neighbor Kids Ink column.


Courtesy USGS

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Published: 9/15/2010 12:00 AM

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Students in Katherine Crawford's fifth grade at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein asked, "Why do volcanoes explode?"

Steamier than a Chicago summer, volcanic material is extremely hot.

Underground pressure and heat force melted rock to burst through openings in a volcano. Magma, the mixture inside the volcano that roils inside the volcano, is called lava when it explodes through the Earth's crust.

Like a witch's bubbling brew, a combination of light-weight magma gasses and steam from heated groundwater bubbles up and spews out of a volcanic vent.

No one can predict when a volcano will erupt; equally as mysterious is predicting when an eruption will stop. Kilauea, in Hawaii, has been erupting for more than 100 years through various vents. Measuring gasses inside a volcano can help determine the probability of an eruption.

Some eruptions are highly explosive and cause devastation for hundreds of miles. Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington State had such an explosion in 1980.

An earthquake triggered a cataclysmic explosion of ash and heated groundwater that flattened 230 square miles of forest in only three minutes. The ash plume soared 15 miles, causing a massive black-out. The eruption continued until the following morning.

Areas protected by snow cover had the best chance of surviving the massive eruption - some gophers, ants and plants emerged soon after the blast.

Thirty years later, the mountain is covered in greenery and the forest is full and lush. Firs, bitter cherry, black cottonwood, willows and shrubs are maturing across the landscape. Animals from bordering areas migrated to the mountain like Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer and hummingbirds.

Check these out

The Vernon Area Library in Lincolnshire suggests these titles on volcanoes:

• "Why Do Volcanoes Blow Their Tops?" by Melvin and Gilda Berger

• "The Best Book of Volcanoes," by Simon Adam

• "Earth's Fiery Fury," by Sandra Downs

• "Structure: Exploring Earth's Interior," by Roy A Gallant

• "Kilauea: Hawaii's Most Active Volcano," by Kathy Furgang

• "I Didn't Know That Mountains Gush Lava and Ash," by Clare Oliver