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Multiple levels of magma storage during the 1980 summer eruptions of Mount St. Helens, WA


Transitions in eruptive style—explosive to effusive, sustained to pulsatory—are a common aspect of volcanic activity and present a major challenge to volcano monitoring efforts. A classic example of such transitions is provided by the activity of Mount St. Helens, WA, during 1980, where a climactic Plinian event on May 18 was followed by subplinian and vulcanian eruptions that became increasing pulsatory with time throughout the summer, finally progressing to episodic growth of a lava dome. Here we use variations in the textures, glass compositions and volatile contents of melt inclusions preserved in pyroclasts produced by the summer 1980 eruptions to determine conditions of magma ascent and storage that may have led to observed changes in eruptive activity. Five different pyroclast types identified in pyroclastic flow and fall deposits produced by eruptions in June 12, July 22 and August 7, 1980, provide evidence for multiple levels of magma storage prior to each event. Highly vesicular clasts have H2O-rich (4.5–5.5 wt%) melt inclusions and lack groundmass microlites or hornblende reaction rims, characteristics that require magma storage at P≥160 MPa until shortly prior to eruption. All other clast types have groundmass microlites; PH20 estimated from both H2O-bearing melt inclusions and textural constraints provided by decompression experiments suggest pre-eruptive storage pressures of ∼75, 40, and 10 MPa. The distribution of pyroclast types within and between eruptive deposits can be used to place important constraints on eruption mechanisms. Fall and flow deposits from June 12, 1980, lack highly vesicular, microlite-free pyroclasts. This eruption was also preceded by a shallow intrusion on June 3, as evidenced by a seismic crisis and enhanced SO2 emissions. Our constraints suggest that magma intruded to a depth of ≤4 km beneath the crater floor fed the June eruption. In contrast, eruptions of July and August, although shorter in duration and smaller in volume, erupted deep volatile-rich magma. If modeled as a simple cylinder, these data require a step-wise decrease in effective conduit diameter from 40–50 m in May and June to 8–12 m in July and August. The abundance of vesicular (intermediate to deep) clast types in July and August further suggests that this change was effected by narrowing the shallower part of the conduit, perhaps in response to solidification of intruded magma remaining in the shallow system after the June eruption. Eruptions from July to October were distinctly pulsatory, transitioning between subplinian and vulcanian in character. As originally suggested by Scandone and Malone (1985), a growing mismatch between the rate of magma ascent and magma disruption explains the increasingly pulsatory nature of the eruptions through time. Recent fragmentation experiments Spieler et al. (2004) suggest this mismatch may have been aided by the multiple levels at which magma was stored (and degassed) prior to these events.

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We thank Ben Kennedy, Hugh Tuffen and John Stix for helpful critiques of the original version of this manuscript. Funding from NSF EAR-0207362 is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to K. V. Cashman.

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Editorial responsibility: J Stix

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Cashman, K.V., McConnell, S.M. Multiple levels of magma storage during the 1980 summer eruptions of Mount St. Helens, WA. Bull Volcanol 68, 57 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00445-005-0422-x

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  • Mount St. Helens
  • Decompression crystallization
  • Magma storage
  • Eruption style