Deadly Surprise: Tiny Crystals Behind Unexpected Violent Volcanic Eruptions

Nanolite ‘snow’ surrounding an iron oxide microlite ‘Christmas tree’. Even these small 50 nm spheres are actually made up of even smaller nanolites aggregated into clumps. Christmas has come early this year for these researchers.
Credit: Brooker/Griffiths/Heard/Cherns

In a new study of volcanic processes, Bristol scientists have demonstrated the role nanolites play in the creation of violent eruptions at otherwise ‘calm’ and predictable volcanoes.

The study, published in Science Advances, describes how nano-sized crystals (nanolites), 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, can have a significant impact of the viscosity of erupting magma, resulting in previously unexplained and explosive eruptions.

“This discovery provides an eloquent explanation for violent eruptions at volcanos that are generally well behaved but occasionally present us with a deadly surprise, such as the 122 BC eruption of Mount Etna,” said Dr. Danilo Di Genova from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences.

“Volcanoes with low silica magma compositions have very low viscosity, which usually allows the gas to gently escape. However, we’ve shown that nanolites can increase the viscosity for a limited time, which would trap gas in the sticky liquid, leading to a sudden switch in behavior that was previously difficult to explain.”

Dr. Richard Brooker also from Earth Sciences, said: “We demonstrated the surprising effect of nanolites on magma viscosity, and thereby volcanic eruptions, using cutting-edge nano-imaging and Raman spectroscopy to hunt for evidence of these almost invisible particles in ash erupted during very violent eruptions.”

“The next stage was to re-melt these rocks in the laboratory and recreate the correct cooling rate to produce nanolites in the molten magma. Using the scattering of extremely bright synchrotron source radiation (10 billion times brighter than the sun) we were able to document nanolite growth.”

“We then produced a nanolite-bearing basaltic foam (pumice) under laboratory conditions, also demonstrating how these nanolites can be produced by undercooling as volatiles are exsolved from magma, lowering the liquidus.”

MORE of the story and 2 more associated images / click image TOP of PAGE