Modelling Volcanic Bombs

This Tongan island, created in 2014, formed when a submarine volcano reached the surface.

When magma meets water on its journey to the surface, the two form a large, partially molten chunk known as a volcanic bomb. As you would expect from their name, these bombs can often be explosive, either in the air or upon impact. But a surprising number of these bombs never explode. Since catching volcanic bombs in action is far too dangerous, researchers modeled them instead to determine what makes a dud.

Examples of porous volcanic bombs.

The type of volcanic bomb they were most interested in comes from Surtseyan eruptions, where the bombs travel through shallow sea or lake water, collecting moisture along the way. When the water reaches the molten interior of the volcanic bomb, it flashes into steam. That’s where the pressure to explode the bombs comes from. But the team found that the bombs are also extremely porous, thanks to bubbles created as the magma depressurizes on its trip to the surface. If the bomb is porous enough, steam escapes the rock before it can build to explosive pressures. (Image credit: top – NASA, others – E. Greenbank et al.; research credit: E. Greenbank et al.; via NYTimes; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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