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Crystallization of microlites during magma ascent: the fluid mechanics of 1980–1986 eruptions at Mount St Helens

Abstract

Eruptions of Mount St Helens (Washington, USA) decreased in intensity and explosivity after the main May 18, 1980 eruption. As the post-May 18 eruptions progressed, albitic plagioclase microlites began to appear in the matrix glass, although the bulk composition of erupted products, the phenocryst compositions and magmatic temperatures remained fairly constant. Equilibrium experiments on a Mount St Helens white pumice show that at 160 MPa water pressure and 900°C, conditions deduced for the 8 km deep magma storage zone, the stable plagioclase is An47. The microlites in the natural samples, which are more albitic, had to grow at lower water pressures during ascent. Isothermal decompression experiments reported here demonstrate that a decrease in water pressure from 160 to 2 MPa over four to eight days is capable of producing the albitic groundmass plagioclase and evolved melt compositions observed in post-May 18 1980 dacites. Because groundmass crystallization occurs over a period of days during and after decreases in pressure, microlite crystallization in the Mount St Helens dacites must have occurred during the ascent of each magma batch from a deep reservoir rather than continuously in a shallow holding chamber. This is consistent with data on the kinetics of amphibole breakdown, which require that a significant portion of magma vented in each eruption ascended from a depth of at least 6.5 km (∼160 MPa water pressure) in a matter of days. The size and shape of the microlite population have not been studied because of the small size of the experimental samples; it is possible that the texture continues to mature long after chemical equilibrium is approached. As the temperature, composition, crystal content and water content of magma in the deep reservoir remained approximately constant from May 1980 to at least March 1982, the spectacular decrease in eruption intensity during this period cannot be attributed to changes in viscosity or density of the magma. Simple fluld mechanical considerations indicate, however, that the observed changes in mass flux of magma can be modelled by a five-fold decrease in conduit radius from 35 to 7 m, produced perhaps by plating of magma along the conduit walls. The decreased ascent rates which accompanied the decrease in conduit radius can explain the change from closed-system to open-system degassing and the shift from explosive to effusive eruptions during 1980.

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Geschwind, CH., Rutherford, M.J. Crystallization of microlites during magma ascent: the fluid mechanics of 1980–1986 eruptions at Mount St Helens. Bull Volcanol 57, 356–370 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00301293

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Key words

  • Mount St Helens
  • Microlite crystallization
  • Conduit size
  • Degassing processes
  • Magma ascent