Ring of Fire Essay

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The Ring of Fire is a zone around the rim of the Pacific Ocean named for its numerous active and destructive volcanoes, and also known for the common occurrence of high magnitude earthquakes. Geologically, the Ring of Fire is a zone of volcanic arcs that are associated with submarine trenches comprising geologic features known as subduction zones. The zone is probably the most active and dangerous tectonic region of the globe.

The Ring of Fire coincides with features known as trenches and their associated volcanic arcs. Some of the more famous of these pairs include: the Kermadec trench and New Zealand; the Java trench and Indonesia; the Mariana trench and the Philippines; the Japan trench and Japan; the Kurile trench, the Aleutian trench and the Aleutian Islands; the Cascadia trench and the Cascade Mountains; the Central America trench and the chain of volcanoes in southern Mexico and Central America; and the Peru-Chile trench and the Andes Mountains.

The origin of the arc-trench system is the convergence of two adjacent tectonic plates and the resulting subduction of one plate (usually the Pacific Plate) under the other. The mountains are the result of the compression and thickening of the lithosphere, and the formation of magma that makes its way to the surface and erupts to form volcanoes. Convergent plate margins are typically associated with high magnitude earthquakes and very explosive volcanoes.

Some of the volcanoes associated with the Ring of Fire have erupted in the recent past with devastating force. Examples include: Ruapehu in New Zealand; Agung, Krakatoa, Merapi, and Tambora in Indonesia; Mayon and Pinatubo in the Philippines; Fuji and Unzen in Japan; Katmai in the Aleutian Islands; the Cascade Mountains of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada (including Mount St. Helens); El Chichon, Paricutin, and Papocatepetl in Mexico; Concepcion and San Cristobal in Nicaragua; Arenal in Costa Rica; and Cerro Volcanico and Viedma in Argentina.

Earthquakes are caused by an instantaneous, large-scale movement of an active fault. Faults are intimately associated with convergent plate boundaries, such as those that occur along the Ring of Fire. Some of the destructive earthquakes associated with the Ring of Fire have occurred in: Taiwan (1999), Kobe (1995), Tokyo (1923), Anchorage (1964), San Francisco (1906, 1989), Mexico City (1985), El Salvador (2001), Peru (1970), and southern Chile (1960). Death tolls for some of these earthquakes range from about 60 lives (San Francisco, 1989) to over 140,000 lives (Tokyo, 1923).

Plate convergence is also responsible for mountain-building. The steep, unstable terrain associated with these young and actively-forming mountains can be subject to erosion by gravity (mass wasting) in the form of landslides, mudflows, and similar types of downslope movements. Some of the volcanoes are tall enough that they have alpine glaciers on their peaks. During volcanic eruptions, these glaciers may melt, producing water that can exacerbate floods and mudflows.

The Ring of Fire is an area that generates tsunamis, and is also subject to the effects of these giant waves. Ring of Fire islands and coastal areas of the Pacific Rim are particularly prone to tsunami hazards because of their open, Pacific-facing coastlines. The earthquakes generated along the Ring of Fire may cause rupture and sudden offset of the ocean floor, or may cause submarine landslides; either of which can trigger the generation of a large surface ocean wave (tsunami) that travels at a high speed through the ocean. When the tsunami reaches a coastline, it breaks and may inundate the coastline. Because of its size, it can produce a wall of water tens of meters high when it breaks. The Pacific Rim coastlines of the Ring of Fire are most prone to the effects of tsunamis. Similar hazards exist in other oceans with active convergent plate boundaries, such as the Indian Ocean.

Bibliography:

  1. BBC, “Earth’s Ring of Fire,” news.bbc.co.uk;
  2. U.S. Geological Survey, “The Ring of Fire,” usgs.gov.

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