Understanding and modeling tephra transport: lessons learned from the 18 May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens

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Discoveries made during the 18 May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens advanced our understanding of tephra transport and deposition in fundamental ways. The eruption enabled detailed, quantitative observations of downwind cloud movement and particle sedimentation, along with the dynamics of co-pyroclastic-density current (PDC) clouds lofted from ground-hugging currents. The deposit was mapped and sampled over more than 150,000 km2 within days of the event and remains among the most thoroughly documented tephra deposits in the world. Abundant observations were made possible by the large size of the eruption, its occurrence in good weather during daylight hours, cloud movement over a large, populated continent, and the availability of images from recently deployed satellites. These observations underpinned new, quantitative models for the rise and growth of volcanic plumes, the importance of umbrella clouds in dispersing ash, and the roles of particle aggregation and gravitational instabilities in removing ash from the atmosphere. Exceptional detail in the eruption chronology and deposit characterization helped identify the eruptive phases contributing to deposition in different sectors of the distal deposit. The eruption was the first to significantly impact civil aviation, leading to the earliest documented case of in-flight engine damage. Continued eruptive activity in 1980 also motivated pioneering use of meteorological models to forecast ash-cloud movement. In this paper, we consider the most important discoveries and how they changed the science of tephra transport.

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Bulletin of Volcanology