What is the geological significance of the "Ring of Fire?"

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A particularly fascinating region of the Earth, the Ring of Fire is a series of volcanoes and extremely active seismic activity resulting from the plate tectonics prevalent around the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean.  The geological formations are the reflection, not surprisingly, of the manner in which the current continents were formed billions of years ago.  The most seismically-active region of the planet, the Ring of Fire is prone to numerous, and sometimes massive, earthquakes.  Fault lines that constitute the “ring” regularly cause tremors or quakes along its length, and the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 250,000 people, many on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  More recently, the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan, destroying nuclear reactors and causing over one thousand deaths – to say nothing of the long-term effects of radiation that leaked from the reactors – was caused by the tectonic activity in the Ring of Fire.  That disaster provoked references – for the elderly, memories – of the 1923 “Great Kanto” earthquake that killed over 100,000 Japanese.

That Japan was formed from tectonic activity is evident both in the scientific fact that beneath its surface lies the convergence of four plates, and from the volcanic matter that comprises large sections of its geography, which includes sections of the Pacific, Eurasian, Philippine and North American plates.  The geology of the Ring of Fire includes many such tectonic divisions.  Another prominent convergence of plates is the San Andreas Fault that runs north-to-south along California where the Pacific and North American plates meet and, frequently, collide.  Those collisions cause regular incidences of earth tremors and, occasionally, earthquakes such as the one that occurred in October 1989 that caused significant damage to the San Francisco bay region, and forced a postponement to that year’s World Series. 

Like Japan, Hawaii is a series of islands formed from tectonic activity and volcanoes.  In fact, Hawaii is considered by geologists to be a “hot spot,” a point in the Ring where volcanic activity is particularly intense with massive lava flows and where plate movement and ocean currents create unique geological formations. 

The unique geology of the Ring of Fire has made it the focal point for the overwhelming majority – as much as 90 percent – of the world’s earthquakes.  The prevalence of earthquakes resulting from the convergence of four major plates and the numerous volcanoes that have emerged along the ring – including Mt. St. Helens in Washington State, which erupted in May 1980, spewing enormous amounts of smoke and ash into the sky and killing 57 people and spreading ash over 11 states – is what gave the Circum-Pacific belt its designation as the “Ring of Fire.”  Because much of it lies deep beneath the depths of the Pacific, there is much more to be learned about the Ring of Fire.  What is known, however, is actually kind of frightening.

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