8 September 2010

February 2010 dome collapse deposits at Soufriere Hills

Posted by Jessica Ball

If you ever want to visit a post-apocalyptic wasteland, someplace that’s been run over by pyroclastic flows would be a great choice. On February 11 of this year, a partial dome collapse on the northeastern flank of the Soufriere Hills lava dome produced spectacular pyroclastic flows, surges, and a 50,000 ft (~15 km) high ash plume. The pyroclastic flows extended the eastern coastline significantly in the area of the old Bramble Airport, and surges were observed flowing out over the ocean on the eastern side of the island.
Here’s a photo from the edge of the collapse deposits, below the Jack Boy Hill overlook. In the distance of this photo, you can (just) see a chimney stack. This is one of the only visible structures left in the whole area; even the old Bramble Airport (which would have been visible to the left of the chimney) is now completely buried.
The chimney stack is part of an old sugar mill, and I’m pretty sure that what’s visible isn’t the whole chimney. To give you a sense of scale, here’s yours truly standing next to the stack. 
Walking on pyroclastic deposits isn’t difficult, but it’s not the most pleasant hike I’ve taken. Ash is nasty stuff, especially when you’re kicking it up whenever you walk somewhere. In addition, these deposits are still(!) quite hot; a few inches down is enough to make it uncomfortable to stand in one place too long, and digging less than a foot down, they become hot to the touch.
Here’s what the deposits look like in cross-section. Those dark streaks are degassing structures, which are cut off by the most recent deposits on the top of the sections. 
As I mentioned before, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory scientists brought us on this hike; in the khaki hat and olive shirt is Dr. Paul Cole, the Director of the Observatory. We’re examining one of the boulders that was transported downslope in the collapse – and while it looks pretty big, it’s actually one of the smaller boulders that we saw. The largest were the size of small houses! (Definitely not something you want to get hit by, which is why it’s a good thing that the people on Montserrat pay attention to the exclusion zones.)
On several of the boulders, we saw examples of marks that are interpreted to have been created by the impact and scraping of one boulder against another during transport. They could be described as slickensides, except here they’re glassy surfaces that were created very quickly during an impact, rather than slowly during the scraping of a fault surface. (The study I linked to mentions that in the largest marks, frictional melting formed pseudotachylite, which is basically glass.)
Things like the friction marks above, and this next photo, remind you of just how dangerous pyroclastic flows are. Aside from giant boulders smashing into each other, you also get stronger-than-hurricane-force blasts, poisonous gases and extremely high temperatures. To give you an idea of what that does to the landscape, here’s a view of the end of a pumice flow lobe that carried trees with it. All the wood here is carbonized; my best guess is that temperatures of around 400°C (or higher!) were involved. That’s about twice as hot as your kitchen oven will go.
Did I mention the force involved in pyroclastic flows? Here’s an example: a tree limb thicker than my arm that was snapped in half and then pretty much welded into that position. 
Another interesting feature just beyond the pumice lobe were these pit craters, formed when the flow buried a water source, which was then heated to steam and exploded up through the new material.
I think the water in question was probably part of this drainage (this is looking roughly to the west), which we walked down on our way back to the vehicles. While these deposits do retain their heat, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to really weld them together, so they’re pretty easily washed away by precipitation, and form these sorts of drainage channels.

The channels do make it much easier to see cross-sections, though! There are at least five (probably more) different deposition events represented here, with a lovely pumice-filled channel right in the middle. 

I’ll try to get to a post on how to distinguish different types of deposits next (and hey, maybe some annotated photos!)

UPDATE: Claire Howard (one awesome reader) sent in some photos of the factory chimney at Trants from May 1995, 6 months before the beginning of the eruption. Turns out that chimney was a lot taller than it is now. Enjoy – and thanks to Claire!