GPR Investigation of Tephra Fallout, Cerro Negro Volcano, Nicaragua: A Method for Constraining Parameters Used in Tephra Sedimentation Models

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Tephra, Ground-penetrating radar, Cerro Negro, Volcanic plume, Numerical model, Near-vent sedimentation

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Most tephra fallout models rely on the advection–diffusion equation to forecast sedimentation and hence volcanic hazards. Here, we test the application of the advection–diffusion equation to tephra sedimentation using data collected on the proximal (350 to ~1,200 m from the vent) to medial (greater than ~1,200 m from the vent) tephra blanket of a basaltic cinder cone, Cerro Negro volcano, located in Nicaragua. Our understanding of tephra depositional processes at this volcano is significantly improved by combination of sample pit data in the medial zone and high-resolution ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data collected in the near vent and proximal zones. If the advection–diffusion equation applies, then the thickness of individual tephra deposits should have Gaussian crosswind profiles and exponential decay with distance away from the vent. At Cerro Negro, steady trade winds coupled with brief eruptions of relatively low energy (VEI 2–3) create relatively simple deposits. GPR data were collected along three crosswind profiles at distances of 700–1,600 m from the vent; sample pits were used to estimate thickness of the 1992 tephra deposit up to 13 km from the vent. Horizons identified in proximal GPR profiles exhibit Gaussian distributions with a high degree of statistical confidence, with diffusion coefficients of ~500 m2 s−1 estimated for the deposits, confirming that the advection–diffusion equation is capable of modeling sedimentation in the proximal zone. The thinning trend downwind of the vent decreases exponentially from the cone base (350 m) to ~1,200 m from the vent. Beyond this distance, deposit overthickening occurs, identified in both GPR and sample pit datasets. The combined data reveal three depositional regimes: (1) a near-vent region on the cone itself, where fallout remobilizes in granular flows upon deposition; (2) a proximal zone in which particles fall from a height of less than ~2 km; and (3) a medial zone, in which particles fall from ~4 to 7 km and the deposit is thicker than expected based on thinning trends observed in the proximal zone of the deposit. This overthickening of the tephra blanket, defining the transition from proximal to medial depositional facies, is indicative of transition from sedimentation dominated by fallout from plume margins to that dominated by fallout from the buoyant eruption cloud—a feature of deposits previously identified in larger-volume eruptions. We interpret this change to represent a change in diffusion law, occurring at total particle fall times (the fall time threshold of numerical models) of ~400 s. Thus, the detailed GPR profiles and pit data collected at Cerro Negro help to validate current numerical models of tephra sedimentation.

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Bulletin of Volcanology, v. 74, issue 6, p. 1409-1424