Behaviour of particle-laden flows into the ocean: Experimental simulation and geological implications

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The behaviour of subaerial particle-laden gravity currents (e.g. pyroclastic flows, lahars, debris flows, sediment-bearing floods and jokulhlaups) flowing into the sea has been simulated with analogue experiments. Flows of either saline solution, simple suspensions of silicon carbide (SiC) in water or complex suspensions of SiC and plastic particles in methanol were released down a slope into a tank of water. The excess momentum between subaerial and subaqueous flow is dissipated by a surface wave. At relatively low density contrasts between the tank water and the saline or simple suspensions, the flow mixture enters the water and forms a turbulent cloud involving extensive entrainment of water. The cloud then collapses gravitationally to form an underwater gravity current, which progresses along the tank floor. At higher density contrasts, the subaerial flow develops directly into a subaqueous flow. The flow slows and thickens in response to the reduced density contrast, which is driving motion, and then continues in the typical gravity current manner. Complex suspensions become dense flows along the tank floor or buoyant flows along the water surface, if the mixtures are sufficiently denser or lighter than water respectively. Flows of initially intermediate density are strongly influenced by the internal stratification of the subaerial flow. Material from the particulate-depleted upper sections of the subaerial flow becomes a buoyant gravity current along the water surface, whereas material from the particulate-enriched lower sections forms a dense flow along the tank floor. Sedimentation from the dense flow results in a reduction in bulk density until the mixture attains buoyancy, lifts off and becomes a secondary buoyant flow along the water surface. Jokulhlaups, lahars and debris flows are typically much denser than seawater and, thus, will usually form dense flows along the seabed. After sufficient sedimentation, the freshwater particulate mixture can lift off to form a buoyant flow at the sea surface, leading to a decoupling of the fine and coarse particles. Flood waters with low particulate concentrations (<2%) may form buoyant flows immediately upon entering the ocean. Subaerial pyroclastic flows develop a pronounced internal stratification during subaerial run-out and, thus, a flow-splitting behaviour is probable, which agrees with evidence for sea surface and underwater flows from historic eruptions of Krakatau and Mont Pelee. A pyroclastic flow with a bulk density closer to that of sea water may form a turbulent cloud, resulting in the deposition of much of the pyroclasts close to the shore. Dense subaqueous pyroclastic flows will eventually lift off and form secondary buoyant flows, either before or after the transformation to a water-supported nature.

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