Topographic Controls on Pyroclastic Density Current Dynamics: Insight from 18 May 1980 Deposits at Mount St. Helens, Washington (USA)

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Our ability to interpret the deposits of pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) is critical for understanding the transport and depositional processes that control PDC dynamics. This paper focuses on the influence of slope on flow dynamics and criticality as recorded in PDC deposits from the 18 May 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens (USA). PDC deposits are found along the steep flanks (10°–30°) and across the pumice plain (~5°) up to 8 km north of the volcano. Granulometry, componentry and descriptions of depositional characteristics (e.g., bedform morphology) are recorded with distance from source. The pumice plain deposits are primarily thick (3–12 m), massive and poorly-sorted, and represent deposition from a series of concentrated PDCs. By contrast, the steep flank deposits are stratified to cross-stratified, suggesting deposition from PDCs where turbulence strongly influenced transport and depositional processes. We propose that acceleration of the concentrated PDCs along the steep flanks resulted in thinning of the concentrated, basal region of the current(s). Enhanced entrainment of ambient air, and autofluidization from upward fluxes of air from substrate interstices and plunging breakers across rugged, irregular topography further inflated the currents to the point that the overriding turbulent region strongly influenced transport and depositional mechanisms. Acceleration in combination with partial confinement in slot canyons and high surface roughness would also increase basal shear stress, further promoting shear and traction transport in the basal region of the current. Conditions along the steep flank resulted in supercritical flow, as recorded by regressive bedforms, which gradually transitioned to subcritical flow downstream as the concentrated basal region thickness increased as a function of decreasing slope and flow energy. We also find that (1) PDCs were erosive into the underlying granular substrate along high slopes (N25°) where currents were partially con- fined in steep slot canyons, suggesting that basal shear stress is an important control on erosive capacity, and (2) bedform amplitude, wavelength and the presence of regressive bedforms increase with increasing slope and proximity to source along the steep flank, suggesting a link between bedform morphology, flow velocity, and flow criticality.While our results indicate that slope and irregular topography strongly influence PDC dynamics, criticality and erosive capacity, the influence of these conditions on ultimate flow runout distance is unclear. The work here also highlights the issue that relationships between the controls on bedform size and morphology in density stratified flows remain poorly constrained, limiting our ability to extract important information about the currents that produced them. These final two points warrant further exploration through the combination of field, experimental and numerical approaches.