A laboratory simulation of pyroclastic flows down slopes

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Laboratory experiments are described which explore the dynamical consequences of buoyant convective upflow observed above hot pyroclastic flows. In nature, the convection is produced by the hot ash particles exchanging heat with air mixed into the front and top of the pyroclastic flow. This effect on the buoyancy due to the mixing of air and ash has been modelled in the laboratory using mixtures of methanol and ethylene glycol (MEG), which have a nonlinear density behaviour when mixed with water. Intermediate mixtures of these fluids can be denser than either initial component, and so the laboratory experiments were inverted models of the natural situation. We studied MEG flowing up under a sloping roof in a tank filled with water. The experiments were performed both in a narrow channel and on a laterally unconfined slope. The flow patterns were also compared with those of conventional gravity currents formed using fresh and salt water. The presence of the region of reversed buoyancy outside the layer flowing along the slope had two significant effects. First, it periodically protected the flow from direct mixing with the environment, resulting in pulses of relatively undiluted fluid moving out intermittently ahead of the main flow. Second, it produced a lateral inflow towards the axis of the current which kept the current confined to a narrow tongue, even on a wide slope. In pyroclastic flows the basal avalanche portion has a much larger density contrast with its surroundings than the laboratory flows. Calculations show that mixing of air into the dense part of a pyroclastic flow cannot generate a mixture that is buoyant in the atmosphere. However, the overlying dilute ash cloud can behave as a gravity current comparable in density contrast to the laboratory flows and can become buoyant, depending on the temperature and ash content. In the August 7th pyroclastic flow of Mount St. Helens, Hoblitt (1986) describes pulsations in the flow front, which are reminiscent of those observed in the experiments. As proposed by Hoblitt, the pulsations are caused by the ash cloud accelerating away from the front of the dense avalanche as a density current. The ash cloud then mixes with more air, becomes buoyant and lifts off the ground, allowing the avalanche to catch up with and move ahead of the cloud. The pulsing behaviour at the fronts of pyroclastic flows could account for the occurrence of cross-bedded layer 1 deposits which occur beneath layer 2 deposits in many sequences. © 1986.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal

Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research