Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 74, Issue 9, pp 1905–1936 | Cite as

The immediate environmental effects of tephra emission

  • Paul Martin Ayris
  • Pierre Delmelle
Review Article


The Earth’s history is punctuated by large explosive eruptions that eject large quantities of magma and silicate rock fragments into the atmosphere. These tephra particles can sometimes be dispersed across millions of square kilometres or even entire continents. The interaction of tephra with or in receiving environments may induce an array of physical, chemical and biological effects. The consequences for affected systems and any dependent communities may be chronic and localised in the event of frequent, small eruptions, while larger and rarer events may have acute, regional-scale impacts. It is, therefore, necessary to document the range of possible impacts that tephra may induce in receiving environments and any resulting effects in interconnected systems. We collate results from many studies to offer a detailed multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary review of the immediate post-eruptive effects of tephra emission into the atmosphere, onto vegetation, soil or ice/snow surfaces and in aquatic systems. We further consider the repercussions that may be induced in the weeks to years afterwards. In the atmosphere, tephra can influence cloud properties and air chemistry by acting as ice nuclei (IN) or by offering sites for heterogeneous reactions, respectively. Tephra on vegetation causes physical damage, and sustained coverage may elicit longer-term physiological responses. Tephra deposits on soils may alter their capacity to exchange gas, water and heat with the atmosphere or may have a specific chemical effect, such as nutrient input or acidification, on sensitive soils. Tephra deposition onto snow or ice may affect ablation rates. Rivers and lakes may experience turbidity increases and changes in their morphology as a result of fallout and prolonged (months or years) erosion from the tephra-covered catchment. In the first weeks after deposition, tephra leaching may affect river chemistry. The abundance and speciation of phytoplankton populations in lakes may be altered by tephra-induced changes in water chemistry or sediment–water nutrient cycling. In the oceans, tephra deposition may fertilise Fe-limited waters, with potential impacts on the global carbon cycle. Embracing the full complexity of environmental effects caused by tephra fall demands a renewed investigative effort drawing on interdisciplinary field and laboratory studies, combined with consideration of the interconnectivity of induced impacts within and between different receiving environments.


Volcanic eruption Tephra Receiving environments Effects 



P.D. acknowledges the support by the Natural Environment Research Council (Urgency Grant NE/I007636/1) and Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (MIS-Ulysse F.6001.11). P.A. was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council Blue Skies Ph.D. studentship grant. We gratefully acknowledge the careful, constructive and thorough comments of Professor S. Self, Dr. T. Wilson, Dr. C. Stewart and Professor C. Connor in their respective roles as editor and reviewers. We have benefited from stimulating discussions with M. Rosi, E. Weingartner, S. Opfergelt, J-T. Cornelis, E. Maters, B. Pereira and D. Macgregor. We thank the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior Tephra Commission for supplying the tephra particle size distribution data. We are also indebted to all those who generously granted permission to reproduce their photographs within this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environment DepartmentUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  2. 2.Earth and Life Institute, Environmental SciencesUniversité Catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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