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Controls on the explosivity of volcanic eruptions

Generally, the viscosity of a magma controls the type and violence of

eruptions. Viscosity is the resistance of a fluid to flow. The more viscous the
magma, the more explosive its eruption is likely to be. Very viscous magmas
tend to resist eruption, and so gas pressure builds within the magma pipe
leading to the volcanic vent. By the time sufficient pressure builds to displace a
viscous magma, the force released by the eruption will be much greater than
for a fluid magma. This leads to explosive eruptions. The most important
controls on viscosity are the silica content of the magma and its temperature.
Basaltic (mafic) lavas are very fluid due to their low silica content. Conversely,
rhyolitic lavas are very viscous due to their high silica content. Magma and
lava viscosity is also a function of temperature; therefore, a the viscosity of a
lava flow will increase as its temperature decreases.

Volatile substances are elements or compounds—hydrogen sulfide,

water, carbon dioxide, radon, and other gasses—that escape during
eruptions. The Latin root for volatile means "winged." Volatile compounds in
magma can cause violent explosive eruptions.


The most violent large volcanic eruption is the collapse of a composite volcano.
This normally happens on the active margins of tectonic plates, that is, at
subduction zones or along a continental rift valley (where a continent is
breaking apart). The process is part of the evolution of a composite volcano,
which starts with a reservoir of molten rock, several miles wide and under
high pressure. This magma rises in the earth's crust and forces its way to the
surface. A composite volcano is born in clouds of ash, supersonic steam
explosions filling the air with hot rock, ash, and various gases.

After a series of eruptions, perhaps over millions of years, the volcano forms a
mountain of lava and pyroclastic material as much as 2-3 mi (3-4 km) high.
Eventually, there is one last eruption of ash and pyroclastic flows. The magma
begins to boil, gas bubbles expand the magma to many times its
original volume, and it explodes upward. The magma chamber rapidly
empties its contents onto the landscape above and the volcano collapses into
the void, forming a depression known as a caldera.

Read more: Volcano - Where Volcanoes Develop, The Origin Of Magma,

Types Of Volcanic Eruptions, Different Kinds Of Volcanic Structures -
Volcanoes Exercise 1.
What controls the violence of an eruption? How fast is magma ejected out of the
Volcanoes are characterised by different eruption styles and violence, from the gentle
effusion (passively flowing; not explosive) of lava observed at Hawaii (USA) or Mt Etna
(Italy), where lava trickles down the flanks of the volcano; to the more energetic
Strombolian activity of Stromoboli (Italy), where large gas bubbles burst at the surface
and throw fragments of molten rock into the air; to the explosive eruptions of Pinatubo
(Philippines) or Mount St Helens (USA), which eject volcanic lava blocks and erupt ash
several kilometres into the atmosphere. From this variety of known volcanic behaviours,
we conclude that the most violent eruptions eject magma with the greatest speed from the
vent and transport it further away from the volcano. Why is this so and what controls the
strength with which magma is ejected out of the volcanic conduit and vent?
The strength at which magma is transported up a volcanic conduit and discharged out of a
volcano is called the discharge rate. The discharge rate is a flux. It is the volume of fluid
(here magma) that is ejected each second from the conduit. The discharge rate depends
on different parameters that characterize the conditions present in the magma chamber
within the volcano, the properties of the magma, and the dimensions of the conduit (see
figure underneath). Each affects how fast magma is ejected out of the magma chamber:
• A higher pressure in the magma chamber will push magma with greater force out
of the chamber and thus will produce a more violent eruption with a higher
discharge rate. High pressures can develop because of the presence of gas in the
magma in the same way a fizzy drink will spray vigorously out of its bottle if its
carbon dioxide bubbles have a higher pressure (i.e., if someone has shaken the
• Of all the magma properties, viscosity (how thick a fluid is) has the greatest effect
on how easily magma can flow. Fluids with high viscosity, such as honey, flow
less easily and hence more slowly than more runny fluids with lower viscosity,
such as water. Another effect is that if magma contains gas bubbles, a higher
magma viscosity will prevent these bubbles from moving freely in the magma so
that the bubbles will need, and tend to have, a higher pressure in order to move. In
other words, higher magma viscosity tends to favour higher magma pressure.
• A volcanic conduit that links a deep magma chamber to the crater vent at the
surface can be envisaged as a cylinder of length L and radius R. Larger diameters
enable more magma to flow through the conduit and thus produce higher
discharge rates. Conversely, a longer diameter will lead to magma flowing more
slowly because of the increased friction along the wall of the conduit.
All these effects can be summarised by the following mathematical expression, which
gives the discharge rate Q at which magma is ejected out of a conduit of average radius R
and length L:
=µ is the viscosity of the magma and P is the pressure inside the magma chamber.
Figure: Schematic picture of a volcano with its magma chamber and conduit. The
magma chamber lies at a depth L below the crater vent and is linked to the vent by a
conduit of average diameter D. The pressure P inside the magma chamber pushes magma
up the volcanic conduit and ejects the magma with a discharge rate Q.
If we know or measure the dimensions R (R = D/2) and L of the conduit, the pressure in
the magma chamber P, and the magma viscosity µ at 2 different volcanoes, such as
Hawaii and Mount St Helens, can we calculate how fast magma is ejected/erupted for
these 2 volcanoes?
HawaiiThe viscosity of Hawaiian magma is quite low and has been measured in laboratories to
be µ = 100 Pa s (Pascal second, or Pa s, is the unit of viscosity). Seismic studies have
revealed that the magma chamber beneath Hawaii lies at a depth of about 5 km and it has
been observed that magma erupt through vents of a couple of metres in diameter, which
gives L = 5000 m and R = 1 m. Finally, studying the composition of the crystals present
in the magma indicate that the pressure pushing the magma out of the magma chamber
during a typical Hawaiian eruption is about 5 x106 = 5,000,000 Pa (Pascal, or Pa, is the
unit of pressure).
Mount St Helens
The viscosity of magma erupted in May 1980 at Mount St Helens is has been measured to
be µ = 2 106 = 2,000,000 Pa s. Seismic studies reveal that the top of the magma chamber
is at about 7 km below the surface and that magma erupts through a 100 m diameter
conduit: L = 7000 m and R = 50 m. The pressure pushing the magma out of the magma
chamber during the May 1980 eruption has been estimated to be about 3 x 107 =
30,000,000 Pa.
Calculate the eruption discharge rate for both volcanoes. Which one would be the most
hazardous (and why?) and which one would be the less hazardous?
L = 5 km, viscosity = 100 Pa s, D = 1 m, P=5 x 106 Pa s Q~4 m3/s
Mount St Helens
L = 7 km, viscosity = 2000000 Pa s, D = 100 m, P= 3 x 107 Pa s Q~5000 m3/s
Main difference comes from diameter: higher value for MSH leads to higher discharge
rate despite the fact that magma is more viscous at MSH than for Hawaii. Also pressure
is slightly higher at MSH than it is at Hawaii.
Mt St Helens would be the most hazardous volcano as the magma is ejected at much
faster rates than at Hawaii

--The discharge rate of magma ejected from a volcano depends on different

parameters that characterize the conditions present in the magma chamber
within the volcano, the properties of the magma, and the dimensions of the
conduit. Each affects how fast magma is ejected out of the magma chamber. In
other words: the speed can vary. ChaCha!

3. Pyroclastic Flows and Their Effects

About Pyroclastic Flows
Pyroclastic flows are high-density mixtures of hot, dry rock fragments and hot gases that move
away from the vent that erupted them at high speeds. They may result from the explosive eruption of
molten or solid rock fragments, or both. They may also result from the nonexplosive eruption of lava
when parts of dome or a thick lava flow collapses down a steep slope. Most pyroclastic flows consist of
two parts: a basal flow of coarse fragments that moves along the ground, and a turbulent cloud of ash
that rises above the basal flow. Ash may fall from this cloud over a wide area downwind from the
pyroclastic flow.

Pyroclastic Flows

...destroy by
direct impact.
...bury sites with
hot rock debris.

...melt snow and

ice to form lahars.

...burn forests,
crops, and buildings.

Effects of Pyroclastic Flows

A pyroclastic flow will destroy nearly everything in its path. With rock fragments ranging in size
from ash to boulders traveling across the ground at speeds typically greater than 80 km per hour,
pyroclastic flows knock down, shatter, bury or carry away nearly all objects and structures in their way.
The extreme temperatures of rocks and gas inside pyroclastic flows, generally between 200°C and
700°C, can cause combustible material to burn, especially petroleum products, wood, vegetation, and
Pyroclastic flows vary considerably in size and speed, but even relatively small flows that move
less than 5 km from a volcano can destroy buildings, forests, and farmland. And on the margins of
pyroclastic flows, death and serious injury to people and animals may result from burns and inhalation
of hot ash and gases.
Pyroclastic flows generally follow valleys or other low-lying areas and, depending on the volume of
rock debris carried by the flow, they can deposit layers of loose rock fragments to depths ranging from
less than one meter to more than 200 m. Such loose layers of ash and volcanic rock debris in valleys
and on hillslopes can lead to lahars indirectly by:

1. Damming or blocking tributary streams, which may cause water to form a lake behind the blockage,
overtop and erode the blockage, and mix with the rock fragments as it rushes downstream (for
example, see this case study at Pinatubo Volcano, Philippines)

2. Increasing the rate of stream runoff and erosion during subsequent rainstorms. Hot pyroclastic flows
and surges can also directly generate lahars by eroding and mixing with snow and ice on a volcano's
flanks, thereby sending a sudden torrent of water surging down adjacent valleys (see case study from
Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia).

4. Safety on volcanoes: volcanic risk

Many people associate "volcanoes" with "danger". Yes, volcanoes CAN be dangerous,
but it has little meaning to say that volcanoes are dangerous, equivalent to saying, for
instance, "cars are dangerous".

It should be seen in a more detailed context. The actual dangers involved when visiting
a volcano depend on many factors, the most important of which are:

1) the present or expected or probable activity of the volcano at the time of

your visit,
2) your location (mainly the distance to that activity) and the time spent there,
3) your preparedness to react in a proper way to potential hazards.

Factor 1) varies a lot from volcano to volcano and with time, factor 2) depends largely
on your personal decision when visiting a volcano, and factor 3) varies from person to
In order to minimize the volcanic risks involved in visiting active volcanoes, you should
be able to evaluate these factors. If in doubt, you should seek the advise of local
experts and travel with a knowledgeable and responsible guide.

Definition of volcanic risk

Risk is a term that is often misunderstood and confused with "hazard". A hazard is a
potentially dangerous event, such as a lava flow, a falling volcanic bomb or a
pyroclastic flow.

The risk is the likelyhood of a person or a property to be injured/killed/damaged etc. by

a hazard. So, volcanic risk clearly depends on:

1) the timescale in question (e.g. the duration of the visit of a crater)

2) the location of the person/property

3) the current state of the volcano

The quantitative value of the volcanic risk is roughly a product of the time spent in a
given area and the combined likelyhood of hazards during that time in that particular
area, and is reduced by possible factors such as degree of experience,
preparedness, and availability of suitable protection or escape possibilities.

It is therefore clear that the volcanic risk in each case can only be estimated. In
particular, factor 3), the current state of a volcano, is extremely variable with time.

Risk zones: because of the variability of volcanic risk, it has no meaning to define fixed
risk zones around volcanoes (e.g. "from 300 to 1000m from the crater") unless one
relates such risk zones to a particular period in time where the bahaviour of the volcano
is assumed constant. A qualitative description of different risk zones can be found here.

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The content above reflects our personal opinion on this subject only. We cannot
assume any responsability about the your decisions and actions if they are based in any
way on the contents of these pages. In particular, we strongly recommend never to
enter any of the high and extreme risk zones.