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Pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) are the most dangerous hazard associated with explosive volcanic eruptions. Despite recent advancements in the general understanding of PDC dynamics, limited direct observation and/or outcrop scarcity often hinder the interpretation of specific transport and depositional processes at many volcanoes. This study explores the potential of sequential fragmentation / transport theory (SFT; cf. Wohletz et al. 1989), a modeling method capable of predicting particle mass distributions based on the physical principles of fragmentation and transport, to retrieve the transport and depositional dynamics of well-characterized PDCs from the size and density distributions of individual components within the deposits. The extensive vertical and lateral exposures through the May 18th, 1980 PDC deposits at Mt. St. Helens (MSH) provide constraints on PDC regimes and flow boundary conditions at specific locations across the depositional area. Application to MSH deposits suggests that SFT parameter distributions can be effectively used to characterize flow boundary conditions and emplacement processes for a variety of PDC lithofacies and deposit locations. Results demonstrate that (1) the SFT approach reflects particle fragmentation and transport mechanisms regardless of variations in initial component distributions, consistent with results from previous studies; (2) SFT analysis reveals changes in particle characteristics that are not directly observable in grain size and fabric data; (3) SFT parameters are more sensitive to regional transport conditions than local (outcrop-scale) depositional processes. The particle processing trends produced using SFT analysis are consistent with the degree of particle processing inferred from lithofacies architectures: for all lithofacies examined in this study, suspension sedimentation products exhibit much better processing than concentrated current deposits. Integrated field observations and SFT results provide evidence for increasing density segregation within the depositional region of the currents away from source, as well as for comparable density-segregation processes acting on lithic concentrations and pumice lenses within the current. These findings further define and reinforce the capability of SFT analysis to complement more conventional PDC study methods, significantly expanding the information gained regarding flow dynamics. Finally, this case study demonstrates that the SFT methodology has the potential to constrain regional flow conditions at volcanoes where outcrop exposures are limited.

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NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, Volume 275, (2014). DOI: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2014.01.016