20 September 2010

Distinguishing deposits from andesitic eruptions

Posted by Jessica Ball

Telling apart different kinds of deposits associated with volcanic eruptions isn’t always easy. There are a lot of factors that can affect their appearance: the location and type of eruption, the magma/lava type, where they’re emplaced, etc. On Montserrat, volcanologists are lucky to have both ancient and modern deposits; they can look at what’s currently being erupted and compare it to the older volcanics on the island. We did quite a bit of this on our field trip, and one of our assignments was to summarize the characteristics of andesitic eruption deposits on Montserrat. (I emphasized that because the characteristics we saw are not necessarily going to be the same for all volcanic eruptions, or even for all andesitic eruptions. I’ve tried to generalize a bit, but apply these cautiously if you’re going into the field to look at other volcanic deposits; things may look very different in your field area.)

Block and ash flows are a kind of pyroclastic density current. “Pyroclastic flow” is a kind of catchall term, but there are more specific ones that better describe the makeup of one of these currents. “Block and ash flow” implies that the flow is composed of blocks (either of denser lava or pumice or both) and ash; “pumice flow” means that the contents are mainly pumice and ash, “ash flow” that there are few blocks and mostly ash in the current.

Faint reverse grading in a block and ash flow deposit at Old Road Bay

Block and ash flows contain a range of clast sizes from mm-sized ash to m-scale boulders. The clasts are usually somewhat angular and tend to be a combination of lithics (lava) and pumice. The matrix of these deposits (what larger clasts are embedded in) is generally ashy and may be crystal-rich. The deposit may be clast or matrix supported (which describes whether there is enough matrix that the clasts are not touching) and poorly sorted (clasts are not separated by size). Oxidation and alteration of clasts as well as fractured blocks (including radially jointed clasts) may occur if the flow is deposited into water and cools quickly. Sometimes you can see grading in the deposits (i.e., a change from small to large clasts, or the reverse), which has to do with the energy of the pyroclastic current and the conditions under which clasts are being deposited from it.

Pointing out matrix in a deposit on the side of the Belham River Valley
Debris avalanches form from older volcanic material that’s unstable enough to collapse, either because of erosion or alteration or both. They form “hummocky” deposits that are very obvious in aerial photos, but in cross section they’re also fairly easy to identify.

Panorama of a debris avalanche deposit near Jack Boy Hill. Different colors mark chunks of preserved stratigraphy.
Debris avalanche deposits contain mm to m sized clasts (or larger), as well as chunks of material from older deposits that retain their original stratigraphy. These clasts and chunks are poorly sorted, and rounded to angular in shape. Clast compositions are almost always mixed, and the matrix is often clayey and highly altered. Jigsaw jointing is apparent in individual clasts, with clast fragments separated by matrix material but orientation with respect to neighboring clasts preserved. Clasts or deposit blocks may be “smeared” out into trains or show internal faulting.
A “jigsaw” fractured block in a debris avalanche deposit

Lahars form when water mixes with volcanic material and flows downslope. These can have the consistency of soup to concrete, and they’re a major concern even when a volcano isn’t erupting (especially if the volcano is located in a tropical area that gets lots of rain.)

House buried in lahar deposits in the Belham River Valley

Clasts in a lahar deposit range from mm to multi-meter size. They are matrix supported, poorly sorted, and often contain clay or silt in the matrix. The clast shapes vary from rounded to angular and may be either monolithologic (all one rock type) or mixed rock types, depending on the source material. Sometimes the deposits show bedding features such as cross-bedding. There is one absolutely diagnostic feature for lahars: preserved voids where bubbles of air were trapped in the matrix mud. The voids are spherical and usually pretty tiny, but they don’t form in pyroclastic currents. (The lack of these voids does not, however, mean that a deposit is not a lahar, so this feature is only useful if it’s present.)

Cross-section of a fairly recent lahar deposit. There’s not much in the way of sorting or grading here.
A fourth type of pyroclastic current, called a surge, also shows up on Montserrat, but they’re not often preserved because they consist of a blast of ash and hot gases (sometimes derived from block and ash flows), and they leave very thin deposits. I don’t have any good photos of them, but they tend to be fine-grained (mm to cm sized clasts at the most), and sometimes show cross-stratification. It’s rare that they’re preserved, especially in a tropical environment, because the fine material washes away very easily.