The Pacific Ocean host a vast arrangement of volcanic structures that are called the “Ring of Fire”. This massive arc of volcanoes begins in New Zealand, curves west to hug Oceania and the Asian continent, then swings northeastward to the North American continent. The ring continues southward until it ends at the very tip of the South American continent.
The Ring of Fire is actually shaped like a horseshoe that stretches over 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) along the edge of the Pacific Plate.
The Pacific Plate Is a Tectonic Plate:
Tectonic plates lie on the Earth’s lithosphere, which is the rigid outer layer of the planet. They fit together like the pieces of an eggshell or a jigsaw puzzle.
The Pacific Plate is the Earth’s largest tectonic plate.
The Pacific Plate incorporates a smaller plate called the Juan de Fuca Plate and shares boundaries with 6 other plates: The American, Nazca, Antarctic, Philippines, Australian-Indian, and some other smaller plates.
The East Pacific Rise:
This area is exciting. As magma pours out, it is actually forcing two tectonic plates apart from each other and creating undersea landscapes. According to Oceania.org,
“The East Pacific Rise is the fastest-spreading mid-ocean ridge in the world, producing a broad, gently-sloping ridge with few transform offsets. It was here that the first submarine hydrothermal vents, or black smokers, were discovered. These vents give rise to oases of life on the deep-ocean floor, supporting complex communities of tube worms, clams, shrimp, and crabs, fueled by nutrients in the vent fluids.”
The Ring of Fire is lined by a total of 450 volcanoes that make up 75% of the Earth’s active volcanoes.
The Pacific Plate volcanoes may form when plate subduction forces one plate deep enough into the earth to be melted by the 1000 degree heat of the magma. The melted crust rises back to the surface and can form many types of volcanoes and islands.
When considering that the Earth’s atmosphere came from volcanic activity, having 75% of the world’s active volcanoes in one area reminds people how volcanic eruptions continue to contribute to the Earth’s atmosphere.
When subduction volcanoes erupt, they can release atmospheric gases that have been trapped underground. This means that some subduction volcanoes can cause “atmospheric recycling”!
The Pacific Plate hosts four major types of plate boundaries. The movement of the plates against these boundaries will cause different types of earthquakes that are unique to the Ring of Fire.
The plates of the highly active Ring of Fire can slide over or under each other. These are called subduction boundaries.
Sometimes, the plates crash into each other. These are called convergent boundaries.
Sometimes, the plates spread away from each other. These are called divergent boundaries. These occur where magma erupts from the sea floor, creating new surface and spreading existing plates apart.
Sometimes, the plates slide past each other. These are called transform plates.
The West Coast of the United States has subduction and transform plates. California sits on a transform boundary where the North American Plate is headed north, and the Pacific Plate is headed south.
The Kamchatka, Alaska and Fukushima earthquakes were subduction earthquakes.
To summarize, a student can spend the rest of his or her life learning about the grand natural formation that is the Pacific Ring of Fire. There is no end to natural wonders and scientific discoveries. The Pacific Ring of Fire reminds everyone of the incredible power and magnitude of events that can happen when the plates of the Earth’s crust rearrange themselves.
National Geographic has basic information and several detailed videos that cover the Ring of Fire.
Windows To The Universe has a major educational and interactive tour of the Earth, the planets and the Sun.