Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Field-trip guide for exploring pyroclastic density current deposits from the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington

July 5, 2017

Pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) are one of the most dangerous phenomena associated with explosive volcanism. To help constrain damage potential, a combination of field studies, laboratory experiments, and numerical modeling are used to establish conditions that influence PDC dynamics and depositional processes, including runout distance. The objective of this field trip is to explore field relations that may constrain PDCs at the time of emplacement.

The PDC deposits from the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens are well exposed along the steep flanks (10–30° slopes) and across the pumice plain (5–12° slopes) as far as 8 km north of the volcano. The pumice plain deposits represent deposition from a series of concentrated PDCs and are primarily thick (3–12 m), massive, and poorly sorted. In contrast, the steep east-flank deposits are stratified to cross-stratified, suggesting deposition from PDCs where turbulence strongly influenced transport and depositional processes.

The PDCs that descended the west flank were largely nondepositional; they maintained a higher flow energy and carrying capacity than PDCs funneled through the main breach, as evidenced by the higher concentration of large blocks in their deposits. The PDC from the west flank collided with PDCs funneled through the breach at various points along the pumice plain. Evidence for flow collision will be explored and debated throughout the field trip.
Evidence for substrate erosion and entrainment is found (1) along the steep eastern flank of the volcano, which has a higher degree of rough, irregular topography relative to the west flanks where PDCs were likely nonerosive, (2) where PDCs encountered debris-avalanche hummocks across the pumice plain, and (3) where PDCs eroded and entrained material deposited by PDCs produced during earlier phases of the eruption. Two features interpreted as large-scale (tens of meters wide) levees and a large (~200 m wide) channel scour-and-fill feature provide the first evidence of self-channelization within PDCs sustained for minutes to tens of minutes (total volume of deposits is ~0.12 km3; area covered is ~15.5 km2; Rowley and others, 1981).

Our ability to interpret the deposits of PDCs is critical for understanding transport and depositional processes that control PDC dynamics. The results of extensive work on the May 18, 1980, PDC deposits show that slope and irregular topography strongly influence PDC flow path, dynamics, criticality (for example, supercritical versus subcritical), carrying capacity, and erosive capacity. However, the influence of these conditions on ultimate flow runout and damage potential warrants further exploration through the combination of field, experimental, and numerical approaches.

Publication Year 2017
Title Field-trip guide for exploring pyroclastic density current deposits from the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington
DOI 10.3133/sir20175022C
Authors Brittany D. Brand, Nicholas Pollock, Damiano Sarocchi, Josef Dufek, Michael A. Clynne
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2017-5022
Index ID sir20175022C
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Volcano Science Center