Within the Ring of Fire, scientists have discovered shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes, submarine mounts, and more. Some of these are entirely underwater, while others, like Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, Plosky Tolbachik in eastern Russia, and Ojos del Salado in the Andes Mountains, are “subaerial” or above ground. The latter is the world’s highest active volcano (reaching around 22,615 feet or 6,893 meters). 

Ojos del Salado in the Andes Mountains
Ojos del Salado in the Andes Mountains

Credit: Sergejf


What is the Ring of Fire?

The Ring of Fire is a collection of underwater volcanoes along the rim of the Pacific Ocean and is the source of numerous volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

It is commonly described as “horseshoe-shaped” and is around 25,000 miles long (or 40,000 km) and about 310 miles wide (or 500 km) (this can change depending on which areas of activity geologists consider part of the belt). There are more than 450 volcanoes in this region. 

The Pacific Ring of Fire Geography
The Pacific Ring of Fire Geography

The areas commonly included as part of the Ring of Fire are the Pacific coast of South America and North America, from the Bering Strait, through Japan, and south to New Zealand. Scientists believe that the Ring of Fire has existed for more than 35 million years but, plate activity in the area is far older.

How did the Ring of Fire Form? 

The Ring of Fire formed due to the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates. Under the Pacific Ocean, plates collide and are destroyed. The destruction of what is known as “lithospheric plates,” or areas of the crust or upper mantle, has resulted in convergent plate boundaries (where lithospheric plates collide). Magma rises to the surface. In these areas, volcanoes, such as those in the Ring of Fire, have formed. 

Present day tectonic plates
Present-day tectonic plates

These geologically active spots also create trenches and basins. The deepest points in the Earth’s oceans are found along these boundaries, such as the Tonga Trench and the Mariana Trench. 

History of the Ring of Fire 

Since the early 19th-century, volcanologists have been aware of the volcanic activity in the Pacific Ocean. In Considerations on Volcanoes by G.P. Scrope, there is a description of the volcanoes that later came to be known as the Ring of Fire. As early as 1906, the series of volcanoes were known as a “ring.” But, it was not until the 1960s that scientists had a better understanding of how these volcanoes formed and the broader theories of plate tectonics. 

Where is the Ring of Fire Located? 

The phrase “Ring of Fire” refers to a region in the Pacific Ocean where a ring shape of volcanoes exists underwater. The exact boundary of the “ring” is debated among scientists. Some disagree about the inclusion or exclusion of a few areas. 

Some of the most commonly disputed are volcanoes around the Antarctic Peninsula and western Indonesia. Some geologists consider all of Indonesia as part of the Ring of Fire, while others exclude the western islands. These are sometimes described as part of the Alpide belt or Himalayan orogenic belt. It is the second-most active area of underwater volcanic activity. See the image below.

Alpide Belt of volcanic activity
Alpide Belt of volcanic activity


Important Events in the Ring of Fire 

Some of the largest volcanic eruptions during the last 11,000 years (the Holocene Epoch) occurred in the Ring of Fire. About 90% of the world’s total earthquakes are in this same region. Some of the largest earthquakes in history can be explored below.

1960 Valdivia Earthquake in Chile

The 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile is the most powerful earthquake in recorded history. It reached a magnitude of 9.5 along the coast of southern Chile and lasted for around ten minutes. The epicenter was south of Santiago, near Lumaco. In the aftermath of the disaster, 2 million people were left homeless, and around 1,655 lost their lives. 

Tsunami Map from Valdivia Earthquake
Tsunami map after Valdivia earthquake

The earthquake triggered an enormous tsunami (waves over thirty-five feet tall were recorded reaching areas as far as 6,200 miles or 10,000 kilometers from the epicenter). The waves impacted communities as far away as New Zealand and the Philippines. The earthquake is named after the city that was most affected— Valdivia. 

2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

This incredibly powerful earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011. It was measured at a magnitude of 9.0-9.1. Its epicenter was in the Oshika Peninsula. It lasted for six minutes and resulted in a tsunami. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful since the inception of modern earthquake measuring tools. Tsunami waves are estimated to have reached heights of 133 feet, or 40.5 m.

In 2021, a report was released stating that 19,747 people died in the disaster, with many thousands more declared missing or injured. 

Seismic observations after 2011 Japan earthquake
Seismic observations after the 2011 Japan earthquake


FAQs 

Why do they call it the “Ring of Fire?”

The Ring of Fire takes its name from the shape of a collection of volcanoes that runs along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. (Although the ring is more “horseshoe” shaped.) It consists of around 450 volcanoes. Many of which are underwater. 

Which countries are in the Ring of Fire?

Some of the countries that have coastline included in the Ring of Fire include Indonesia, Australia, Philippines, Ecuador, Guatemala, the United States, Canada, Russia, Bolivia, Chile, and Japan. These, along with many more, are some of the places located within the Ring of Fire. 

Is the Ring of Fire active now?

Yes, at any one time, numerous volcanoes in the Ring of Fire are active. Some, which are completely underwater, are even erupting.