Collaborative Research: Boiling-Over Pyroclastic Flows Grant uri icon



  • Explosive volcanic eruptions often produce pyroclastic density currents, ground-hugging mixtures of particles and hot gas that are denser than the ambient atmosphere. Pyroclastic density currents rapidly propagate in the lowest levels of the atmosphere where they can directly impact human population centers and structures, and are some of the most hazardous volcanic phenomena. Pyroclastic density currents erupted at Cotopaxi in 1877 and at Tungurahua in 2006 and 2008 were produced by a little understood process described as "boiling-over". During a boiling-over eruption, a dense froth of pyroclasts and gas pours over the crater rim or through a notch in the crater, creating a pyroclastic density current. The mechanism for the formation of boiling-over pyroclastic density currents differs in important ways from those that result from the collapse of lava-domes or high convective columns, and the deposits are distinctive. Boiling-over eruptions are likely common but under-recognized in the geologic record, as most are associated with relatively small volume eruptions of volatile-rich mafic to intermediate magmas. This project, which is supported by the Petrology&Geochemistry program and the Americas Program (OISE) is a multidisciplinary, international collaborative effort in which numerical modeling and field studies will be integrated to characterize boiling-over deposits, determine why this style of eruption occurs, and understand the transport of the resulting density currents.

    In particular, this proposal focuses on two fundamental questions designed to advance our understanding of pyroclastic density currents: 1. What conduit conditions result in boiling-over dynamics? 2. What are the relative contributions of eroded substrate and entrained air in boiling-over eruptions, and how does this influence pyroclastic density current dynamics? It is proposed to use 2D multiphase numerical models to test whether the presence of an enclosed summit crater enhances the decompression rate, allowing for a rapid sequence of exsolution and microlite crystallization over a limited spatial domain. The results of this study will have general applicability to volcanoes worldwide. The research team will also use petrographic and volatile content observations from the field studies at Cotopaxi and Tungurahua as a crucial test of the fidelity of the modeling program. They will test the hypothesis that after exiting the summit crater, a particle-dense, bed load region in the pyroclastic flows develops rapidly. This bed load region, which is constituted of particles that make multiple and enduring contacts with the substrate, may enhance erosion and gas pore pressure, and suppress ambient air-entrainment resulting in longer runout distances of these flows. Detailed analysis of deposit architecture, paleomagnetic measurements, and granulometry along with a 3D granular multiphase computational approach will be used to examine the role of entrainment in the propagation of these flows. One of the many novel aspects of the proposed investigation is the use of thermal proxies, including thermoremanent magnetization, in conjunction with the numerical models to constrain the thermal consequences of entrainment.

date/time interval

  • February 15, 2009 - January 31, 2013

total award amount

  • 85,638