Why deep-water eruptions are so different from subaerial eruptions

Raymond A.F. Cas, Jack Simmons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Magmas erupted in deep-water environments (>500 m) are subject to physical constraints very different to those for subaerial eruptions, including hydrostatic pressure, bulk modulus, thermal conductivity, heat capacity and the density of water mass, which are generally orders of magnitude greater than for air. Generally, the exsolved volatile content of the erupting magma will be lower because magmas decompress to hydrostatic pressures orders of magnitude greater than atmospheric pressure. At water depths and pressures greater than those equivalent to the critical points of H2O and CO2, exsolved volatiles are supercritical fluids, not gas, and so have limited ability to expand, let alone explosively. Gas overpressures are lower in deep submarine magmas relative to subaerial counterparts, limiting explosive expansion of gas bubbles to shallower waters. Explosive intensity is further minimized by the higher bulk modulus of water, relative to air. Higher retention of volatiles makes subaqueously erupted magmas less viscous, and more prone to fire fountaining eruption style compared with compositionally equivalent subaerial counterparts. The high heat capacity and thermal conductivity of (ambient) water makes effusively (and/or explosively) erupted magmas more prone to rapid cooling and quench fragmentation, producing non-explosive hyaloclastite breccia. Gaseous subaqueous eruption columns and hot water plumes form above both explosive and non-explosive eruptions, and these can entrain pyroclasts and pumice autoclasts upward. The height of such plumes is limited by the water depth and will show different buoyancy, dynamics, and height and dispersal capacity compared with subaerial eruption columns. Water ingress and condensation erosion of gas bubbles will be major factors in controlling column dynamics. Autoclasts and pyroclasts with an initial bulk density less than water can rise buoyantly, irrespective of plume buoyancy, which they cannot do in the atmosphere. Dispersal and sedimentation of clasts in water is affected by the rate at which buoyant clasts become water-logged and sink, and by wind, waves, and oceanic currents, which can produce very circuitous dispersal patterns in floating pumice rafts. Floating pumice can abrade by frictional interaction with neighbors in a floating raft, and generate in transit, post-eruptive ash fallout unrelated to explosive activity or quench fragmentation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number198
Number of pages21
JournalFrontiers in Earth Science
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2018


  • Bulk modulus
  • Hydrostatic pressure
  • Limited volatile exsolution
  • Magma properties
  • Pumice raft dispersal
  • Submarine eruptions
  • Supercritical fluid

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