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Watching a volcanic eruption is as close as any human is likely to come to seeing the titanic forces that are at work in the interior of the planet.

The Earth’s metallic core is cloaked by a mantle of molten rock, which is in a constant state of agitation as it rises, cools, and sinks. Tremendous pressures build up beneath the Earth’s relatively thin crust—the ground on which we walk. This endless churning has split the surface into 20 or so rocky slabs, or plates, that slowly drift about on the mantle. Every so often, like a shaken bottle of carbonated soda, hot, liquefied, gas-infused rock called magma squirts out the top in the form of lava.

Sometimes the eruption is sudden and violent, as was the case at Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington State in 1980, and at the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991. At other times—depending on the nature of the magma—eruptions are relatively slow and quiet. People had plenty of time to get out of the way of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano in 1984. Its lava crept down the slope at about the speed of thick honey.

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An image constructed from satellite data of Mount St. Helens. Click on this photo to enter photo gallery

Watch as Mount St. Helens erupts.

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Virtually fly through Mount St. Helens in this 3-D animation compiled from satellite data.

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Flows are high-speed avalanches of hot ash, rock fragments, and gas moving down the sides of a volcano during explosive eruptions, or when the steep edge of a dome breaks apart and collapses.


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