Supereruptions are the largest explosive volcanic eruptions on Earth. They generate catastrophic, widespread ash-fall blankets and voluminous ignimbrites, with accompanying caldera collapse. However, the mechanisms of generation, storage and evacuation of the parental silicic magma bodies remain controversial. In this Review, we synthesize field, laboratory and petrological evidence from 13 Quaternary supereruptions to illustrate the range of diversity in these phenomena. Supereruptions can start mildly over weeks to months before escalating into climactic activity, or go into vigorous activity immediately. Individual supereruptions can occupy periods of days to weeks, or be prolonged over decades. The magmatic sources vary from single bodies of magma to multiple magma bodies that are simultaneously or sequentially tapped. In all 13 cases, the crystal-rich (>50–60% crystals), deep roots (>10 km) of the magmatic systems had lifetimes of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years or more. In contrast, the erupted magmas were assembled at shallower depths (4–10 km) on shorter timescales, sometimes within centuries. Geological knowledge of past events, combined with modern geophysical techniques, demonstrate how large silicic caldera volcanoes (that have had past supereruptions) operate today. Future research is particularly needed to better constrain the processes behind modern volcanic unrest and the signals that might herald an impending volcanic eruption, regardless of size.
Field studies demonstrate that supereruptions show great diversity in their style, rapidity of onset, duration of eruption, triggering mechanisms for eruption onset and caldera collapse.
The magma reservoirs from which supereruptions are sourced are comparably diverse, with examples of both single and multiple bodies, each of which can be compositionally zoned or convectively mixed.
Past supereruptions serve to define a supervolcano, but this arbitrary term does not constrain the modern or future behaviour of that particular volcano.
Geophysical imaging of magma storage regions at modern, large silicic volcanoes (including supervolcanoes) is broadly consistent with petrological inferences, but imaging resolution is insufficient to identify small, melt-dominant bodies capable of supplying eruptions.
Large silicic volcanoes often undergo periods of unrest, consisting of elevated seismicity, ground deformation and gas emissions. Monitoring of these systems must contend with the challenge of differentiating ‘normal’ unrest from pre-eruptive signals.
Further work is needed to better understand the processes that cause these long-lived magmatic systems to accumulate eruptible magma bodies and the subsequent tipping points that cause these to erupt.
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C.J.N.W. has been supported by the Marsden Fund grant VUW0813 (Royal Society of New Zealand), a James Cook Fellowship (Royal Society of New Zealand) and the ECLIPSE Programme, funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. G.F.C. is supported by a NERC Standard Grant (NE/T000317/1), M.L.M. is supported by an NSF CAREER grant (EAR 2042662) and S.J.B. acknowledges Marsden Fund grant VUW1627.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Events that discharge more than 1 × 1015 kg of magma (450 km3 or >~1,000 km3 of pumice and ash) in a single eruption.
A topographic depression formed through the collapse of the Earth’s surface, owing to the withdrawal of large volumes of magma from the upper crust.
A volcanic centre that has produced one (or more) supereruptions in the past, also referred to as a supereruptive centre.
A framework of crystals (>50–60 volume %) with interstitial melt, which forms a strong skeleton that can no longer easily flow or erupt, owing to its high viscosity.
Material separated out from the crystal mush, consisting of <40–50% crystals, that can flow and is eruptible, but which has a short lifetime within the upper crust.
- Magmatic systems
Entire regions within the crust and upper mantle that feed the volcanic system, including the melt-dominant body or bodies and mushy, non-eruptible material.
- Fall deposits
Deposited from high (tens of kilometres) buoyant atmospheric plumes of ash, dispersed by winds over thousands to millions of square kilometres; individual deposits are millimetres to metres in thickness.
Deposits from concentrated, ground-hugging pyroclastic flows, typically metres to hundreds of metres thick, covering up to thousands to tens of thousands of square kilometres.
- Juvenile material
Material that is newly discharged at the Earth’s surface in an eruption.
- Lithic material
Pre-existing (country) rocks caught up as fragments in the deposits of explosive eruptions.
Crystals grown in the mush that have been separated out from the melt in which they grew and, hence, can generate contrasting compositions of melt if reheated.
- Absolute age
An age determined by measurements of radioactive decay in minerals and associated with the time period since closure of the system.
- Relative age
An age that is determined, typically through measurements of diffusion profiles in minerals, relative to the point of quenching by eruption.
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Wilson, C.J.N., Cooper, G.F., Chamberlain, K.J. et al. No single model for supersized eruptions and their magma bodies. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 610–627 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00191-7
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