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A geochemical investigation of fragmentation and physical fractionation in pyroclastic flows from from the Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat

Horwell, C.J.; Braña, L.P.; Sparks, R.S.J.; Murphy, M.D.; Hards, V.L.


L.P. Braña

R.S.J. Sparks

M.D. Murphy

V.L. Hards


Abstract Geochemical analysis is used to investigate fragmentation and physical fractionation in pyroclastic flows. Bulk analyses of the matrices (<4 mm) and individual size fractions in pyroclastic flow deposits formed in the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat, West Indies are compared with analyses of associated ash fall deposits formed from lofting plumes above the flows, and with bulk lava analyses. Within the flow matrices intermediate grain size fractions (<4 mm to 125 μm) are depleted in the groundmass component of the lava (principally glass and micro-crystalline silica) and enriched in phenocryst components. Fine-grained size fractions (<125 μm) are enriched in groundmass components. Crushing of the lava in the laboratory with analysis of grain size fractions shows the same relationship, but enrichment and depletions are less pronounced. Comparison of the bulk compositions of matrices, ash fall deposits and lava show that the finest fractions, enriched in the groundmass component, have been selectively removed from the flows into the lofting ash plumes. Mass balance calculations indicate that typically about 10% of the mass of the pyroclastic flows are elutriated into lofting ash plumes to form ash fall deposits, which is consistent with data on relative volumes of the deposits. Three factors influence fragmentation and fractionation. First, the initial size distribution of crystals influences fragmentation with phenocrysts resisting break up, whereas fine groundmass minerals (mostly feldspar, glass and micro-crystalline silica) are preferentially fragmented to form the finest ash fractions. Second, the mineral phases and groundmass glass vary in strength so that vesicular glass fragments more rapidly than other silicate minerals. This interpretation is supported by crushing experiments on different rock types. Third, only the finest fractions are elutriated into the lofting ash plume from the pyroclastic flows. Description of the natural size distributions in terms of a power law and fractal dimensions indicates that fragmentation is dominated by a single stage fragmentation process with secondary crushing and abrasion only being of minor importance.


Horwell, C., Braña, L., Sparks, R., Murphy, M., & Hards, V. (2001). A geochemical investigation of fragmentation and physical fractionation in pyroclastic flows from from the Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 109(4), 247-262.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date 2001-09
Deposit Date Jun 22, 2007
Journal Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Print ISSN 0377-0273
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 109
Issue 4
Pages 247-262
Keywords Soufrière Hills volcano, Pyroclastic flows, Fragmentation, Geochemistry.