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Three-dimensional geophysical mapping of rock alteration and water content at Mount Adams, Washington: Implications for lahar hazards

January 1, 2007

Hydrothermally altered rocks, particularly if water saturated, can weaken stratovolcanoes, thereby increasing the potential for catastrophic sector collapses that can lead to far-traveled, destructive debris flows. Evaluating the hazards associated with such alteration is difficult because alteration has been mapped on few active volcanoes and the distribution and intensity of subsurface alteration are largely unknown on any active volcano. At Mount Adams, some Holocene debris flows contain abundant hydrothermal minerals derived from collapse of the altered, edifice. Intense hydrothermal alteration significantly reduces the resistivity and magnetization of volcanic rock, and therefore hydrothermally altered rocks can be identified with helicopter electromagnetic and magnetic measurements. Electromagnetic and magnetic data, combined with geological mapping and rock property measurements, indicate the presence of appreciable thicknesses of hydrothermally altered rock in the central core of Mount Adams north of the summit. We identify steep cliffs at the western edge of this zone as the likely source for future large debris flows. In addition, the electromagnetic data identified water in the brecciated core of the upper 100-200 m of the volcano. Water helps alter the rocks, reduces the effective stress, thereby increasing the potential for slope failure, and acts, with entrained melting ice, as a lubricant to transform debris avalanches into lahars. Therefore knowing the distribution of water is also important for hazard assessments. Our results demonstrate that high-resolution geophysical and geological observations can yield unprecedented views of the three-dimensional distribution of altered rock and shallow pore water aiding evaluation of the debris avalanche hazard.