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Tephra transformations: variable preservation of tephra layers from two well-studied eruptions


Volcanologists often use terrestrial tephra layers to reconstruct volcanic eruptions. However, the conversion of fresh tephra deposits into tephra layers is poorly understood. To address this knowledge gap, we surveyed tephra layers emplaced by the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, USA (MSH1980) and the 1947 eruption of Hekla, Iceland (H1947). We compared our measurements with observations made shortly after the 1947 and 1980 eruptions, to calibrate the subsequent transformation of the tephra deposit. We expected the tephra layers to retain the broad characteristics of the original deposits, but hypothesized (a) changes in thickness and mass loading due to re-working, and (b) positive correlations between thickness and vegetation density. We observed some systematic changes in tephra layer properties with distance from the vent and the main plume axis. However, the preservation of the layers varied both between and within our survey locations. Closed coniferous forest appeared to provide good conditions for the preservation of the MSH1980 tephra, as expected; preservation of the H1947 deposit in sparsely vegetated parts of Iceland was much more variable. However, preservation of the MSH1980 deposit in sparsely vegetated areas of eastern Washington State was also excellent, possibly due to biocrust formation. We concluded that the preservation of tephra layers is sensitive to surface conditions at the time of the eruption. These findings have implications for the reconstruction of past eruptions where eruption plumes span regions of variable surface cover.

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We thank Kathy Cashman and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We are also grateful to Icelandic landowners for access, Ben Fitzhugh and Tim Kohler for fieldwork support, and Richard Waitt (USGS) for his advice, particularly regarding the selection of field sites and the interpretation of the MSH1980 tephra layer.


Financial support was provided by the National Science Foundation of America through grant 1202692 ‘Comparative Island Ecodynamics in the North Atlantic,’ and grant 1249313 ‘Tephra layers and early warning signals for critical transitions’ (both to AJD).

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Correspondence to Nick A. Cutler.

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Cutler, N.A., Streeter, R.T., Marple, J. et al. Tephra transformations: variable preservation of tephra layers from two well-studied eruptions. Bull Volcanol 80, 77 (2018).

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  • Hekla
  • Mount St Helens
  • Mass loading
  • Biocrusts
  • Kriging
  • Volcanological reconstruction
  • Biophysical feedbacks