Low efficiency of large volcanic eruptions in transporting very fine ash into the atmosphere
Scientific Reports 9, Article number: 1449 (2019)
Mathieu Gouhier, Julia Eychenne, Nourddine Azzaoui, Arnaud Guillin, Mathieu Deslandes, Matthieu Poret, Antonio Costa & Philippe Husson
Volcanic ash clouds are common, often unpredictable, phenomena generated during explosive eruptions. Mainly composed of very fine ash particles, they can be transported in the atmosphere at great distances from the source, having detrimental socio-economic impacts. However, proximal settling processes controlling the proportion (ε) of the very fine ash fraction distally transported in the atmosphere are still poorly understood. Yet, for the past two decades, some operational meteorological agencies have used a default value of ε = 5% as input for forecast models of atmospheric ash cloud concentration. Here we show from combined satellite and field data of sustained eruptions that ε actually varies by two orders of magnitude with respect to the mass eruption rate. Unexpectedly, we demonstrate that the most intense eruptions are in fact the least efficient (with ε = 0.1%) in transporting very fine ash through the atmosphere. This implies that the amount of very fine ash distally transported in the atmosphere is up to 50 times lower than previously anticipated. We explain this finding by the efficiency of collective particle settling in ash-rich clouds which enhance early and en masse fallout of very fine ash. This suggests that proximal sedimentation during powerful eruptions is more controlled by the concentration of ash than by the grain size. This has major consequences for decision-makers in charge of air traffic safety regulation, as well as for the understanding of proximal settling processes. Finally, we propose a new statistical model for predicting the source mass eruption rate with an unprecedentedly low level of uncertainty.