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Relating vesicle shapes in pyroclasts to eruption styles

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Vesicles in pyroclasts provide a direct record of conduit conditions during explosive volcanic eruptions. Although their numbers and sizes are used routinely to infer aspects of eruption dynamics, vesicle shape remains an underutilized parameter. We have quantified vesicle shapes in pyroclasts from fall deposits of seven explosive eruptions of different styles, using the dimensionless shape factor \(\Omega \), a measure of the degree of complexity of the bounding surface of an object. For each of the seven eruptions, we have also estimated the capillary number, Ca, from the magma expansion velocity through coupled diffusive bubble growth and conduit flow modeling. We find that \(\Omega \) is smaller for eruptions with \({\rm{Ca}} \ll 1\) than for eruptions with Ca\(\gg 1\). Consistent with previous studies, we interpret these results as an expression of the relative importance of structural changes during magma decompression and bubble growth, such as coalescence and shape relaxation of bubbles by capillary stresses. Among the samples analyzed, Strombolian and Hawaiian fire-fountain eruptions have \({\rm{Ca}} \ll 1\), in contrast to Vulcanian, Plinian, and ultraplinian eruptions. Interestingly, the basaltic Plinian eruptions of Tarawera volcano, New Zealand in 1886 and Mt. Etna, Italy in 122 BC, for which the cause of intense explosive activity has been controversial, are also characterized by \({\rm{Ca}} \gg 1\) and larger values of \(\Omega \) than Strombolian and Hawaiian style (fire fountain) eruptions. We interpret this to be the consequence of syn-eruptive magma crystallization, resulting in high magma viscosity and reduced rates of bubble growth. Our model results indicate that during these basaltic Plinian eruptions, buildup of bubble overpressure resulted in brittle magma fragmentation.

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The study was funded by the National Science Foundation grants EAR-1019872 and EAR-0810332. The authors thank J. E. Gardner, A. A. Proussevitch, and one anonymous reviewer for the thorough and constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Pranabendu Moitra.

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Moitra, P., Gonnermann, H.M., Houghton, B.F. et al. Relating vesicle shapes in pyroclasts to eruption styles. Bull Volcanol 75, 691 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00445-013-0691-8

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  • Vesicle shape
  • Pyroclast
  • Basaltic Plinian eruption
  • Regularity
  • Capillary number
  • Bubble growth
  • Conduit flow model
  • Magma fragmentation