Subaqueous basaltic magmatic explosions trigger phreatomagmatism: a case study from Askja, Iceland

Graettinger, Alison H.; Skilling, Ian; McGarvie, Dave and Höskuldsson, Ármann (2013). Subaqueous basaltic magmatic explosions trigger phreatomagmatism: a case study from Askja, Iceland. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 264 pp. 17–35.




Sequences of basaltic pillow lavas that transition upwards with systematic gradation from pillow fragment breccias to fluidal bomb-bearing breccia to bomb-bearing lapilli tuffs are common at Askja volcano, Iceland. Based on the detailed textural investigation of three of these sequences, we argue that they record temporally continuous transition from effusive to explosive products that were erupted from and deposited at or near a single subaqueous vent. The recognition of such sequences is important as they provide evidence for controls on the onset of explosive activity in subaqueous environments. Such investigations are complicated by the interplay of magmatic gas expansion, phreatomagmatic and mechanical granulation fragmentation mechanisms in the subaqueous eruptive environment. All of the sequences studied at Askja have textural, componentry and sedimentological characteristics suggestive of a close genetic and spatial relationship between the pillow lavas and all of the overlying glassy clastic deposits. The identification of magma fragmentation signatures in pyroclasts was accomplished through detailed textural studies of pyroclasts within the full range of grain sizes of a given deposit i.e. bomb/blocks, lapilli and fine ash. These textural characteristics were compared and evaluated as discriminators of fragmentation in pyroclastic deposits. The presence of angular vitric clasts within the breccia and lapilli tuff displaying fragile glassy projections indicates little or no postdepositional textural modification. A shift in vesicle and clast textures between the pillow lavas and the large concentration of fluidal bombs in the breccia indicate that the phreatomagmatic explosions were initially triggered by magmatic vesiculation. The initial magmatic gas expansion may have been triggered by depressurization caused by the drainage of the ice-confined lake surrounding Askja. The Fuel Coolant Interactions (FCI) of the more efficient phreatomagmatic explosion was enabled by the increase in the surface area to volume ratio of the fluidal bombs in the water, producing a premix of magma and water. The onset and increasing influence of phreatomagmatic fragmentation is preserved in the presence of very fine blocky ash particles and diminished presence of larger particles such as fluidal bombs. The textural, sedimentological and environmental characteristics of these deposits suggest that phreatomagmatic explosions can be triggered by initial magmatic gas expansion, but that it is likely one of many mechanisms for triggering such explosions.

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