The intensity of plinian eruptions
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Peak intensities (magma discharge rate) of 45 Pleistocene and Holocene plinian eruptions have been inferred from lithic dispersal patterns by using a theoretical model of pyroclast fallout from eruption columns. Values range over three orders of magnitude from 1.6 × 106 to 1.1 × 109 kg/s. Magnitudes (total erupted mass) also vary over about three orders of magnitude from 2.0 × 1011 to 6.8 × 1014 kg and include several large ignimbrite-forming events with associated caldera formation. Intensity is found to be positively correlated with the magnitude when total erupted mass (tephra fall, surges and pyroclastic flows) is considered. Initial plinian fall phases with intensities in excess of 2.0 × 108 kg/s typically herald the onset of major pyroclastic flow generation and subsequent caldera collapse. During eruptions of large magnitude, the transition to pyroclastic flows is likely to be the result of high intensity, whereas the generation of pyroclastic flows in small magnitude eruptions may occur more often by reduction of magmatic volatile content or some transient change in magma properties. The correlation between plinian fall intensity and total magnitude suggests that the rate of magma discharge is related to the size of the chamber being tapped. A simple model is presented to account for the variation in intensity by progressive enlargement of conduits and vents and excess pressure at the chamber roof caused by buoyant forces acting on the chamber as it resides in the crust. Both processes are fundamentally linked to the absolute size of the pre-eruption reservoir. The data suggest that sustained eruption column heights (i.e. magma discharge rates) are indicators of eventual eruption magnitude, and perhaps eruptive style, and thus are key parameters to monitor in order to assess the temporal evolution of plinian eruptions.
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