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Growth of volcanic ash aggregates in the presence of liquid water and ice: an experimental approach


Key processes influencing the aggregation of volcanic ash and hydrometeors are examined with an experimental method employing vibratory pan aggregation. Mechanisms of aggregation in the presence of hail and ice pellets, liquid water (≤30 wt%), and mixed water phases are investigated at temperatures of 18 and −20 °C. The experimentally generated aggregates, examined in hand sample, impregnated thin sections, SEM imagery, and X-ray microtomography, closely match natural examples from phreatomagmatic phases of the 27 ka Oruanui and 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions. Laser diffraction particle size analysis of parent ash and aggregates is also used to calculate the first experimentally derived aggregation coefficients that account for changing liquid water contents and subzero temperatures. These indicate that dry conditions (<5–10 wt% liquid) promote strongly size selective collection of sub-63 μm particles into aggregates (given by aggregation coefficients >1). In contrast, liquid-saturated conditions (>15–20 wt% liquid) promote less size selective processes. Crystalline ice was also capable of preferentially selecting volcanic ash <31 μm under liquid-free conditions in a two-stage process of electrostatic attraction followed by ice sintering. However, this did not accumulate more than a monolayer of ash at the ice surface. These quantitative relationships may be used to predict the timescales and characteristics of aggregation, such as aggregate size spectra, densities, and constituent particle size characteristics, when the initial size distribution and water content of a volcanic cloud are known. The presence of an irregularly shaped, millimeter-scale vacuole at the center of natural aggregates was also replicated during interaction of ash and melting ice pellets, followed by sublimation. Fine-grained rims were formed by adding moist aggregates to a dry mixture of sub-31 μm ash, which adhered by electrostatic forces and sparse liquid bridges. From this, we infer that the fine-grained outer layers of natural aggregates reflect recycled exposure of moist aggregates to regions of volcanic clouds that are relatively dry and dominated by <31 μm ash.

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ARVE acknowledges Education New Zealand for funding through a New Zealand International Doctoral Research Scholarship and CJNW acknowledges support from grant VUW0813 from the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. CC acknowledges Marie Curie grant FP7-IEF 235328. Nancy Bertler and Kate Sinclair are thanked for generous access to the ice core facility at GNS Science. Stewart Bush is acknowledged for thin sections and Kai-Uwe Hess is thanked for access to the X-ray microtomography facilities at TUM Garching, Germany. Mark Schwartz and Marcel Roux (New Zealand MetService) are thanked for useful discussions. Adam Durant and Steve Lane are gratefully acknowledged for thorough reviews that significantly improved the manuscript, and Steve Self is thanked for editorial handling.

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Correspondence to Alexa R. Van Eaton.

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Van Eaton, A.R., Muirhead, J.D., Wilson, C.J.N. et al. Growth of volcanic ash aggregates in the presence of liquid water and ice: an experimental approach. Bull Volcanol 74, 1963–1984 (2012).

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  • Volcanic ash aggregates
  • Ice
  • Hydrometeors
  • Accretionary lapilli
  • Explosive volcanism