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The Three Largest Active Volcanoes on Earth

By Edited Aug 20, 2015 3 4
Mauna Loa from the International Space Station
Credit: Public domain.

This is the Big Island of Hawaii, which is about 75 miles (120 km) in diameter. The largest volcano toward the center is Mauna Loa, which comprises most of the island.[1] Up and to the right Mauna Kea can be seen. In this photo, the view is looking northeast.

The three largest volcanoes in physical size

The world’s largest volcanoes in physical size are not the ones that could produce the very largest eruptions. The largest eruptions are produced by supervolcanoes.[2]

The three largest volcanoes in physical size are Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, which comprise most of the Big Island of Hawaii, and Mount Teide, which comprises part of the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Each are shield volcanoes, although Mount Teide is actually a stratovolcano sitting on top of a large shield volcano.[3][4]

The three supervolcanoes, Taupo, Toba, and Yellowstone, are all smaller in physical size but are capable of far larger and more dangerous eruptions.[2] However, Mauna Loa and Mount Teide are still considered two of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes because they have a history of destroying towns on their respective islands and will likely do it again sometime.[3][4]

There is one ancient extinct volcano that is larger than Mauna Loa,[5] which is also discussed below.

This article contains some basic volcanology terms such as stratovolcano and shield volcano. For definitions and explanations, see my article Types of Volcanoes and Volcanology Terms.

Mount Teide, Canary Islands, Spain: Third-largest active volcano on Earth

Mount Teide and the island of Tenerife from space
Credit: Public domain, courtesy of NASA.

The island of Tenerife, part of Spain's Canary Islands in the northern Atlantic Ocean near Africa, with a very visible caldera in the center. The island group consists of multiple large shield volcanoes.[7]

Located on the island of Tenerife, which has over 900,000 residents, in the Canary Islands, this potentially dangerous volcano last erupted in 1909. In 1706 the primary town of the island and several other villages were destroyed by an eruption. Christopher Columbus likely witnessed an eruption on the island when sailing past Tenerife in 1492.[4][6]

The peak of the mountain stands at an elevation of 12,198 feet (3,718 meters), and is the tallest peak in the Canary Islands, which are part of Spain and located in the northern Atlantic Ocean (see a map showing the location below).[4]

The Canary Islands consist of multiple shield volcanoes, and Mount Teide is considered a stratovolcano which is part of, and sits on the top of, the shield volcanoes that formed Tenerife anciently. As a stratovolcano, it has potential for explosive eruptions similar to Italy’s dangerous Mount Vesuvius, which it closely resembles in structure.[6][7]

The island formed millions of years ago, and begins from the ocean floor at a depth of about 12,400 feet (3,240 meters), and thus overall is about 24,600 feet in height. However, not all of the island is the Teide volcanic complex. The portion that is the active volcano Mount Teide has an estimated volume that ranks third after the two Hawaiian volcanoes discussed below.[4]

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA: Second-largest active volcano on Earth

Mauna Kea summit
Credit: Public domain, courtesy of USGS.

The summit of Mauna Kea features prominent cinder cones.[8]

I’ve seen many websites incorrectly state that Mauna Kea is the largest active volcano in the world, although the largest is actually its neighbor on the same island, Mauna Loa. The confusion comes from the fact that the peak of Mauna Kea is taller. It is the tallest volcano in the world, counting from the sea floor below, although not the largest by volume.[1][8]

The most recent eruption of Mauna Kea was about 4,500 years ago. By geological standards, this is recent and the shield volcano is still considered active and is expected to eventually erupt again.[8][11]

The estimate for the volume of Mauna Kea is about 3,200 cubic km (770 cubic miles). Although this is considerably larger than Mount Teide in the Canary Islands, it is far less than Mauna Loa, discussed next.[8]

Mauna Loa, Hawaii, USA: Largest active volcano on Earth

Hawaii's Big Island
Credit: Photos are from Wikipedia and in the public domain.

The Big Island of Hawaii is comprised of five shield volcanoes. Mauna Loa is by far the largest.[1]

No active volcano on Earth matches the size of Mauna Loa, which comprises most of the Big Island of Hawaii.  This large, broad shield volcano originates about 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) below the surface of the ocean, and rises to a height of 13,679 feet (4,169 meters) above sea level.  Thus the total height from the ocean floor is over 30,000 feet (9,000 meters).[3]

The volcano is so massive that it pushes the Earth’s crust down where it sits, and the true bottom of the volcano goes down even further, making the overall height of the volcano actually over 56,000 feet (over 17,000 meters). Even without counting the underground portion, it is easily the tallest mountain on Earth. The total volume of Mauna Loa is estimated at 75,000 cubic km (18,000 cubic miles).[3]

Mauna Loa is considered highly dangerous due to its recent history of eruptions, and the potential damage that could be caused, in future eruptions, to towns located on the island.  The most recent eruption occurred in 1984, and in hundreds of years it has not been known to go so long without an eruption.[3]

Mauna Loa destroyed two villages during the 20th century.  The city of Hilo is partially built on lava flows from an eruption which occurred during the 19th century.[3]

There is one extinct volcano larger than all of them

Tamu Massif location
Credit: Screen capture from Google Earth.

The yellow pin out in the ocean identifies the location of Tamu Massif, the largest volcano on Earth - although it has been extinct for about 145 million years. Above and to the left Japan can be seen, which is located approximately 1,000 miles (600 km) west of Tamu Massif.[5]

In the northern Pacific Ocean there is an extinct shield volcano that is the same approximate size as the US state of Arizona or the island of Great Britain, dwarfing even Mauna Loa. However, it has been extinct since the end of the Jurassic Period, having last erupted about 145 million years ago. It is entirely submerged beneath the ocean, with its peak 6,500 feet (1,980 meters) below sea level.[5]

The slopes are very gradual. With the immense area that it covers, it rises just 14,620 feet (4,460 meters) from the sea floor. Due to this shield volcano’s very gradual sloping and its location beneath the surface of the ocean, it was not recognized as a giant extinct volcano until 2013. The estimated volume is an astonishing 2.5 million cubic km (600,000 cubic miles).[5][9][12]



Jul 2, 2015 12:39pm
Fascinating piece. I was not familiar with Mount Teide and did not know Mauna Loa was so large.
Jul 21, 2015 10:52am
Excellent information, I too did not know the extent of the total height of Mauna Loa. Keep up the great work!
Aug 20, 2015 9:12am
Sorry but I work on Tenerife and three times a week I get to do some really hard stuff called walking the trail from Montana Blanca to the very summit, then I get to ride the teleferico for free/ The last time I checked - yesterday (19th August 2015) Teide had not moved in the X, Y or Z co-ordinates - it stood last week at 3718 metres - a typo I accept but you will be surprised how many will quote your 3178 metre height as being correct "Because it is on a website." Incidentally I am actually a volcanologist (which is why I walk up checking equipment), and something many people are not aware of is that each and every day about 90 metric tonnes of Carbon Dioxide are vented from Teide and the caldera. Christopher Columbus actually did not witness and eruption on Tenerife in 1492 - his ships log states that he witnessed "...Fuego grande en el Valle de la Orotava...," which many have claimed that it was an eruption. Now by modern standards Columbus may be considered to be just an ordinary person - but he had sailed around the Mediterranean and would have witnessed the ongoing eruptive activity of Stromboli volcano - so regardless of whether he had a degree or not e knew what a volcanic eruption looked like, especially a strombolian eruption. There was indeed an eruption on Tenerife in 1492 - at the Boca de Cangrejo (Mouth of the Crab) vent which lies west of Teide onthe Santiago ridge - a good reference is Carracdeo et al 2007. (I can supply you with the paper FOC) Teide is actually the Third tallest volcano on a volcanic ocean island after Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa both on Hawaii. A little aside about Mauna Loa - its volume is estimated at about 7.5 x 10^13 cubic metres and that means its mass is estimated to be about 2.25 x 10^18 kg or about 2.25 x 10^15 tonnes. Now you most certainly would not want that falling off the shelf on to your toes - make your eyes water just a leetle beet!!
Aug 20, 2015 5:14pm
Thank your excellent comment. I corrected the mistyped elevation number. Your comment is the first that I've seen denying that Columbus saw an eruption in 1492. I'm not saying you're wrong, although the Global Volcanism Program says, "Tenerife was perhaps observed in eruption by Christopher Columbus, and several flank vents on the Canary Island's most active volcano have been active during historical time." Since it's apparently not a sure thing, I altered the wording to reflect this.
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  1. "Hawaii (island)." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  2. "Supervolcano." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  3. "Mauna Loa." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  4. "Teide." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  5. "Tamu Massif." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  6. "Tenerife." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  7. "Canary Islands." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  8. "Mauna Kea." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  9. "Scientists confirm existence of largest single volcano on earth." Science Daily. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  10. "Bimodality of Lavas in the Teide–Pico Viejo Succession in Tenerife—the Role of Crustal Melting in the Origin of Recent Phonolites." Journal of Petrology. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  11. "Volcano." Wikipedia. 2/07/2015 <Web >
  12. "5 Colossal Cones: Biggest Volcanoes on Earth." Live Science. 2/07/2015 <Web >

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