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Reconstructing the dynamics of the highly similar May 2016 and June 2019 Iliamna Volcano, Alaska ice–rock avalanches from seismoacoustic data

April 8, 2021

Surficial mass wasting events are a hazard worldwide. Seismic and acoustic signals from these often remote processes, combined with other geophysical observations, can provide key information for monitoring and rapid response efforts and enhance our understanding of event dynamics. Here, we present seismoacoustic data and analyses for two very large ice–rock avalanches occurring on Iliamna Volcano, Alaska (USA), on 22 May 2016 and 21 June 2019. Iliamna is a glacier-mantled stratovolcano located in the Cook Inlet, ∼200 km from Anchorage, Alaska. The volcano experiences massive, quasi-annual slope failures due to glacial instabilities and hydrothermal alteration of volcanic rocks near its summit. The May 2016 and June 2019 avalanches were particularly large and generated energetic seismic and infrasound signals which were recorded at numerous stations at ranges from ∼9 to over 600 km. Both avalanches initiated in the same location near the head of Iliamna's east-facing Red Glacier, and their ∼8 km long runout shapes are nearly identical. This repeatability – which is rare for large and rapid mass movements – provides an excellent opportunity for comparison and validation of seismoacoustic source characteristics. For both events, we invert long-period (15–80 s) seismic signals to obtain a force-time representation of the source. We model the avalanche as a sliding block which exerts a spatially static point force on the Earth. We use this force-time function to derive constraints on avalanche acceleration, velocity, and directionality, which are compatible with satellite imagery and observed terrain features. Our inversion results suggest that the avalanches reached speeds exceeding 70 m s−1, consistent with numerical modeling from previous Iliamna studies. We lack sufficient local infrasound data to test an acoustic source model for these processes. However, the acoustic data suggest that infrasound from these avalanches is produced after the mass movement regime transitions from cohesive block-type failure to granular and turbulent flow – little to no infrasound is generated by the initial failure. At Iliamna, synthesis of advanced numerical flow models and more detailed ground observations combined with increased geophysical station coverage could yield significant gains in our understanding of these events.

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