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Supereruptions driven by magma buoyancy

Numerical modelling shows that magma buoyancy is the most important factor in determining the frequency and magnitude of the Earth’s most destructive volcanic phenomena

A new paper by a collaboration from the Universities of Geneva, Bristol and Savoie quantifies the relative contributions of magma supply, mechanical properties of the crust and magma, and tectonic regime in controlling the frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions. The team, led by Professor Luca Caricchi, coupled over 1.2 million simulations of a thermomechanical numerical model of magma injection into Earth’s crust with complex statistical analysis to try and replicate the behaviour of melt beneath a volcano.

This work reveals a dichotomy in the causes of volcanic eruptions, which is related to their size. It is known that small, frequent eruptions are triggered by magma replenishment, which imparts stress on the magma chamber walls; eruptions occur when this stress exceeds the strength of the surrounding rock. In contrast, Caricchi et al. demonstrate that bigger, less frequent eruptions are instead driven by the intrinsic buoyancy associated with large magma bodies, a consequence of  the slow accumulation of low-density magma beneath a volcano.

Fountain Geyser Pool, Yellowstone

Fountain Geyser Pool, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone caldera has experienced three supereruptions in the last 2.1 million years. Credit: US National Archives (79-AA-T19)

These findings are particularly important because this is the first time a physical link between the frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions has been established. The findings allow the predictions of the scale of the largest possible volcanic eruption on Earth; the work suggests magma chamber can contain a maximum of 35,000 km3 of eruptible magma, translating to an eruption spewing out approximately 3,500 km3 of rock. This is three times the volume released during the supereruption of Yellowstone around 640,000 years ago.

University of Bristol press release

Caricchi, L, Annen, CJ, Blundy, JD, Simpson, G & Pinel, V (2014) ‘Frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions controlled by magma injection and buoyancy’, Nature Geoscience.


Super-eruptions are extremely rare events. Indeed, the global frequency of explosive volcanic eruptions is inversely proportional to the volume of magma released in a single event. The rate of magma supply, mechanical properties of the crust and magma, and tectonic regime are known to play a role in controlling eruption frequency and magnitude, but their relative contributions have not been quantified. Here we use a thermomechanical numerical model of magma injection into Earth’s crust and Monte Carlo simulations to explore the factors controlling the recurrence rates of eruptions of different magnitudes. We find that the rate of magma supply to the upper crust controls the volume of a single eruption. The time interval between magma injections into the subvolcanic reservoir, at a constant magma-supply rate, determines the duration of the magmatic activity that precedes eruptions. Our simulations reproduce the observed relationship between eruption volume and magma chamber residence times and replicate the observed correlation between erupted volumes and caldera dimensions. We also find that magma buoyancy is key to triggering super-eruptions, whereas pressurization associated with magma injection is responsible for relatively small and frequent eruptions. Our findings help improve our ability to decipher the long-term activity patterns of volcanic systems.



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