Phreatic Eruption

Friday, July 2, 2010

A phreatic eruption is a type of volcanic eruption which occurs when rising magma makes contact surface water. The extreme temperature of the magma (anywhere from 600 to 1,170 °C) causes near-instantaneous evaporation to steam resulting in an explosion of steam, water, ash, rock, and volcanic bombs. At Mount St. Helens hundreds of steam explosions preceded a 1980 plinian eruption of the volcano. A less intense geothermal event may result in a mud volcano. In 1949, Thomas Jaggar described this type of activity as a steam-blast eruption.

Phreatic eruptions typically include steam and rock fragments; the inclusion of lava is unusual. The temperature of the fragments can range from cold to incandescent. If molten material is included, the term phreato-magmatic may be used. These eruptions occasionally create broad, low-relief craters called maars. Phreatic explosions can be accompanied by carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide gas emissions. The former can asphyxiate at sufficient concentration; the latter is a broad spectrum poison. A 1979 phreatic eruption on the island of Java killed 149 people, most of whom were overcome by poisonous gases.

It is believed the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, which obliterated most of the volcanic island and created the loudest sound in recorded history, was a phreatic event. Kilauea, in Hawaii, has a long record of phreatic explosions; a 1924 phreatic eruption hurled rocks estimated at eight tons up to a distance of one kilometer. Additional examples are the 1963–65 eruption of Surtsey, the 1965 eruption of Taal Volcano, and the 1982 Mount Tarumae eruption.