The Ring of Fire is a zone of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that encircles the basin of the Pacific Ocean. It is shaped like a horseshoe and it is 40,000 km long. It is associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, island arcs, and volcanic mountain ranges and/or plate movements. It is sometimes called the circum-Pacific belt or the circum-Pacific seismic belt.
90% of the world's earthquakes and 81% of the world's largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire. The next most seismic region (56% of earthquakes and 17% of the world's largest earthquakes) is the Alpide belt which extends from Java to Sumatra through the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is the third most prominent earthquake belt.
The Ring of Fire is a direct consequence of plate tectonics and the movement and collisions of crustal plates.
The eastern section of the ring is the result of the Nazca Plate and the Cocos Plate being subducted beneath the westward moving South American Plate.
A portion of the Pacific Plate along with the small Juan de Fuca Plate are being subducted beneath the North American Plate. Along the northern portion the northwestward moving Pacific plate is being subducted beneath the Aleutian Islands arc.
Further west the Pacific plate is being subducted along the Kamchatka - Kurile Islands arcs on south past Japan. The southern portion is more complex with a number of smaller tectonic plates in collision with the Pacific plate from the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Bougainville, Tonga, and New Zealand.
Indonesia lies between the Ring of Fire along the northeastern islands adjacent to and including New Guinea and the Alpide belt along the south and west from Sumatra, Java, Bali, Flores, and Timor.
The December 2004 earthquake just off the coast of Sumatra was actually a part of the Alpide belt. The famous and very active San Andreas Fault zone of California is a transform fault which offsets a portion of the East Pacific Rise under southwestern United States and Mexico. The motion of the fault generates numerous small earthquakes, at multiple times a day, most of which are too small to be felt.
Major volcanic areas in the Ring of Fire
- In South America the Nazca plate is colliding with the South American plate. This has created the Andes and volcanoes such as Cotopaxi and Azul.
- In Central America, the tiny Cocos plate is crashing into the North American plate and is therefore responsible for the Mexican volcanoes of Popocatepetl and Paricutun (which rose up from a cornfield in 1943 and became a instant mountains).
- Between Northern California and British Columbia, the Pacific, Juan de Fuca, and Gorda plates have built the Cascades and the infamous Mount Saint Helens, which erupted in 1980.
- Alaska's Aleutian Islands are growing as the Pacific plate hits the North American plate. The deep Aleutian Trench has been created at the subduction zone with a maximum depth of 25,194 feet (7679 meters).
- From Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to Japan, the subduction of the Pacific plate under the Eurasian plate is responsible for Japanese islands and volcanoes (such as Mt. Fuji).
- The final section of the Ring of Fire exists where the Indo-Australian plate subducts under the Pacific plate and has created volcanoes in the New Guinea and Micronesian areas. Near New Zealand, the Pacific Plate slides under the Indo-Australian plate.