Mountains add drama to the horizon, they inspire and comfort us, and they provide living space for thousands of animals and birds. But how often do you stop and think about where mountains came from? With the recent eruption of Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, more and more people are heading out to see America's active volcanoes. From the Hawaii lava floes to the ash-spouting peaks of the western Cascade range, our nation has plenty of hot spots to capture the interest of budding vulcanologists.
With its towering peaks and snow-capped ranges, Alaska is a volcano lover's dream. The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands have about 80 major volcanic centers. Alaskan volcanoes have produced one or two eruptions per year since 1900, the most famous of which is Mt. Redoubt. Mt. Redoubt, which erupted on March 22, 2009, is located on the gorgeous Kenai Peninsula west of Cook Inlet. The mountain has actually erupted five times since 1900, including once in 1989.
The 2009 Mt. Redoubt eruption reached a dramatic state on March 22 when the mountain spewed vast amounts of steam and ash, disturbing air flight patterns for a number of weeks. Activity continues with ongoing seismic changes and steam coming out of the summit crater. There have also been ongoing rock falls coming down the side of the lava dome.
Hawaii is a volcano lover's dream. Not many places on earth allow a person to get so up-close and personal with active volcanoes. On your next visit to the island state, be sure to visit the Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes on the island of Hawaii. These two mountains erupt frequently but in non-explosive ways that make them perfect for family and tourist visits. The volcanoes have also been studied extensively, which means that visitors can get a good picture of each volcano's magma reservoir "plumbing" system.
In the contiguous United States, the active volcanoes are in the Cascade range that runs from California, north through Oregon and Washington states, and on into Canada. These mountains don't erupt with the frequency of Hawaii's volcanoes, but they're equally interesting and can be easier to reach. At the same time, it's important to remember that Cascade volcanoes can be far more dangerous (when active) than Hawaiian volcanoes because they tend to be more explosive.
The most famous Cascade volcano is Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington state. St. Helens erupted in 1980, spewing enormous clouds of ash and causing massive mud slides that destroyed all life on one side of the mountain. Today Mt. St. Helens is safe to visit and can be a fascinating place to explore. Visitors can take in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument above Spirit Lake, watch the mountain's activity on web cams, and learn all about what makes this volcano tick.
Unlike the Hawaiian volcanoes, the Cascade volcanoes release a variety of magma types and are more likely to develop steep-sided cones (these are then called "composite volcanoes"). With so many different types of volcanoes to learn about, you may just have to visit them all!