Pyroclastic density currents are highly dangerous ground-hugging currents from volcanoes that cause >50% of volcanic fatalities globally. These hot mixtures of volcanic particles and gas exhibit remarkable fluidity, which allows them to transport thousands to millions of tonnes of volcanic material across the Earth’s surface over tens to hundreds of kilometres, bypassing tortuous flow paths and ignoring rough substrates and flat and upsloping terrain. Their fluidity is attributed to an internal process that counters granular friction. However, it is difficult to measure inside pyroclastic density currents to quantify such a friction-defying mechanism. Here we show, through large-scale experiments and numerical multiphase modelling, that pyroclastic density currents generate their own air lubrication. This forms a near-frictionless basal region. Air lubrication develops under high basal shear when air is locally forced downwards by reversed pressure gradients and displaces particles upward. We show that air lubrication is enhanced through a positive feedback mechanism, explaining how pyroclastic density currents are able to propagate over slopes much shallower than the angle of repose of any natural granular material. This discovery necessitates a re-evaluation of hazard models that aim to predict the velocity, runout and spreading of pyroclastic density currents.
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The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.
The code used to produce the DEM-CFD is freely available at https://mfix.netl.doe.gov/.
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We thank A. Moebis and K. Kreutz for assistance during the experiments, and K. Arentsen and G. Lube Sr for internal review. This study was supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund (contract number MAU1506), National Science Foundation (EAR 1650382) and New Zealand Natural Hazards Research Platform (contract number 2015-MAU-02-NHRP).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Lube, G., Breard, E.C.P., Jones, J. et al. Generation of air lubrication within pyroclastic density currents. Nat. Geosci. 12, 381–386 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0338-2
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