Tube pumices as strain markers of the ductile–brittle transition during magma fragmentation

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Magma fragmentation—the process by which relatively slow-moving magma transforms into a violent gas flow carrying fragments of magma—is the defining feature of explosive volcanism. Yet of all the processes involved in explosively erupting systems, fragmentation is possibly the least understood1,2. Several theoretical and laboratory studies on magma degassing3,4,5,6,7 and fragmentation8,9,10,11 have produced a general picture of the sequence of events leading to the fragmentation of silicic magma12,13,14. But there remains a debate2 over whether magma fragmentation is a consequence of the textural evolution of magma to a foamed state where disintegration of walls separating bubbles becomes inevitable due to a foam-collapse criterion, or whether magma is fragmented purely by stresses that exceed its tensile strength. Here we show that tube pumice—where extreme bubble elongation is observed—is a well-preserved magmatic ‘strain marker’ of the stress state immediately before and during fragmentation. Structural elements in the pumice record the evolution of the magma's mechanical response from viscous behaviour (foaming and foam elongation) through the plastic or viscoelastic stage, and finally to brittle behaviour. These observations directly support the hypothesis that fragmentation occurs when magma undergoes a ductile–brittle transition and stresses exceed the magma's tensile strength.

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Figure 1: Texture of the tube pumice lapilli from Ramadas.
Figure 2: Synthetic pattern of the deformation structures observed in pumice clasts of the Ramadas pyroclastic deposit.


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We thank J. G. Viramonte for discussions on the Ramadas eruption and field assistance. This work was supported by European Union, DAAD, DFG (Di 431) and MEC grants.

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Correspondence to D. B. Dingwell.

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Martí, J., Soriano, C. & Dingwell, D. Tube pumices as strain markers of the ductile–brittle transition during magma fragmentation. Nature 402, 650–653 (1999) doi:10.1038/45219

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