Volcanic Ash - Dispersal


Ash particles are incorporated into eruption columns as they are ejected from the vent at high velocity. The initial momentum from the eruption propels the column upwards. As air is drawn into the column, the bulk density decreases and it starts to rise buoyantly into the atmosphere. At a point where the bulk density of the column is the same as the surrounding atmosphere, the column will cease rising and start moving laterally. Lateral dispersion is controlled by prevailing winds and the ash may be deposited hundreds to thousands of kilometres from the volcano, depending on eruption column height, particle size of the ash and climatic conditions (especially wind direction and strength and humidity).

Ash fallout occurs immediately after the eruption and is controlled by particle density. Initially, coarse particles fall out close to source. This is followed by fallout of accretionary lapilli, which is the result of particle agglomeration within the column. Ash fallout is less concentrated during the final stages as the column moves downwind. This results in an ash fall deposit which generally decreases in thickness and grain size exponentially with increasing distance from the volcano. Fine ash particles may remain in the atmosphere for days to weeks and be dispersed by high-altitude winds. These particles can impact on the aviation industry (refer to impacts section) and, combined with gas particles, can affect global climate.

Volcanic ash plumes can form above pyroclastic density currents, these are called co-ignimbrite plumes. As pyroclastic density currents travel away from the volcano, smaller particles are removed from the flow by elutriation and form a less dense zone overlying the main flow. This zone then entrains the surrounding air and a buoyant co-ignimbrite plume is formed. These plumes tend to have higher concentrations of fine ash particles compared to magmatic eruption plumes due to the abrasion within the pyroclastic density current.

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