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Dynamics of Large, Wet Volcanic Clouds : The 25.4 ka Oruanui Eruption of Taupo Volcano, New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-12, 14:05 authored by Van Eaton, Alexa R

This work investigates the dynamics of large-scale, ‘wet’ volcanic eruption clouds generated by the interaction of silicic magma with external water. The primary case study draws from a detailed record of non-welded pyroclastic deposits from the ~25.4 ka Oruanui eruption of Taupo volcano, New Zealand, one of the largest phreatomagmatic eruptions documented worldwide. This research uses a three-pronged approach, integrating results from (i) field observations and textural data, (ii) mesoscale numerical modeling of volcanic plumes, and (iii) analogue laboratory experiments of volcanic ash aggregation. This interdisciplinary approach provides a new understanding of dynamic and microphysical interactions between collapsing and buoyant columns, and how this behavior controls the large-and small-scale nature of phreatoplinian eruption clouds. Stratigraphic field studies examine the styles of dispersal and emplacement of deposits from several phases of the Oruanui eruption (primarily phases 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8). Detailed stratigraphic observations and laser diffraction particle size analysis of ash aggregates in these deposits clarify the evolution of aggregation mechanisms with time through the relevant eruption phase, and with distance from vent. Deposits of the wettest phase (3) show the key role of turbulent lofting induced by pyroclastic density currents in forming aggregates, particularly those with ultrafine ash rims (30-40 vol.% finer than 10 μm) which are uniquely formed in the ultrafine ash-dominated clouds above the currents. Drier deposits of phases 2 and 5, which also saw lower proportions of material emplaced by pyroclastic density currents, contain fewer aggregates that are related to low water contents in the medial to distal plume. Discovery and documentation of high concentrations of diatom flora in the Oruanui deposits indicates efficient fragmentation and incorporation of paleo-lake Taupo sediments during the eruption. This highlights the potential for incidental contamination of volcanic deposits with broader implications for correlation of distal tephras and possible contamination of paleoenvironmental records due to incorporation of diachronous populations of volcanically-dispersed diatoms. The impact of extensive surface water interaction on large-scale volcanic eruptions (>108 kg s-1 magma) is examined by employing the first 2-D large-eddy simulations of ‘wet’ volcanic plumes that incorporate the effects of microphysics. The cloud-resolving numerical model ATHAM was initialized with field-derived characteristics of the Oruanui case study. Surface water contents were varied from 0-40 wt.% for eruptions with equivalent magma eruption rates of c. 1.3 x108 and 1.1 x109 kg s-1. Results confirm that increased surface water has a pronounced impact on column stability, leading to unstable column behavior and hybrid clouds resulting from simultaneous ascent of material from stable columns and pyroclastic density currents (PDCs). Contrary to the suggestion of previous studies, however, abundant surface water does not systematically lower the spreading level or maximum height of volcanic clouds, owing to vigorous microphysics-assisted lofting of PDCs. Key processes influencing the aggregation of volcanic ash and hydrometeors (airborne water phases) are examined with a simple and reproducible experimental method employing vibratory pan agglomeration. Aggregation processes in the presence of hail and graupel, liquid water (<30 wt.%), and mixed water phases are investigated at temperatures from 18 to -20 °C. Observations from impregnated thin sections, SEM images and x-ray computed microtomography of these experimental aggregates closely match natural examples from phreatomagmatic phases of the ~25.4 ka Oruanui and Eyjafjallajökull (May 2010) eruptions. These experiments demonstrate that the formation of concentric, ultrafine rims comprising the outer layers of rim-type accretionary lapilli requires recycled exposure of moist, preexisting pellets to regions of volcanic clouds that are relatively dry and dominated by ultrafine (<31 μm) ash. This work presents the first experimentally-derived aggregation coefficients that account for changing liquid water contents and sub-zero temperatures, and indicates that dry conditions (<10 wt.% liquid) promote the strongly size-selective collection of sub-31 μm particles into aggregates (given by aggregation coefficients >1). These quantitative relationships may be used to predict the timescales and characteristics of aggregation, such as aggregate size spectra, densities and constituent particle size characteristics, when the initial size distribution and hydrometeor content of a volcanic cloud are known. The integration of numerical modeling, laboratory experimentation and field data lead to several key conclusions. (1) The importance of the microphysics of ash-water interactions in governing the eruption cloud structure, boosting the dispersal power of the cloud and controlling aggregate formation in response to differing water contents and eruption rates. (2) Recognition of the contrasting roles of differential aggregation versus cloud grain size in controlling the formation and nature of aggregate particles, notably those with characteristic ultrafine outer rims. (3) The importance of pyroclastic density currents as triggers for convection and aggregation processes in the eruption cloud.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Wilson, Colin; McGregor, James; Bradley, Stuart