Preservation of thin tephra

by Russell Blong , Neal Enright and Paul Grasso.

Abstract:  The preservation of thin (<300 mm thick) tephra falls was investigated at four sites in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Alaska and Washington, USA. Measurements of the variations in the thickness of: (i) Tibito Tephra 150 km downwind from the source, Long Island (PNG) erupted mid-seventeenth century; (ii) St Helens W tephra (erupted 1479–80 A.D.) on the slopes of the adjacent Mt. Rainier in Washington State; (iii) Novarupta (1912) tephra preserved on Kodiak Island (Alaska, USA); and (iv) an experimentally placed tephra at a site near Mt. Hagen (PNG) allow tentative conclusions to be drawn about the relative importance to tephra preservation of slope gradients, vegetation cover and soil faunal activity. Results for the experimental tephra suggest that compaction occurs rapidly post-deposition and that estimates of tephra thickness and bulk density need to indicate how long after deposition thickness measurements were made. These studies show that erosional reworking of thin tephra is not rapid even on steeper slopes in high rainfall environments. In Papua New Guinea a 350-year old tephra is rarely present under forest but is well-preserved under alpine grasslands. On Mt. Rainier 500-year old tephra is readily preserved under forest but absent under grasslands as a result of gopher activity. Despite the poor relationship between tephra thickness and slope steepness the thickness of thin tephras is highly variable. On Kodiak Island thickness variability across a few metres is similar to that observed across the whole northeast of the island. The measured variability reported here indicates large sample sizes are necessary to adequately estimate the mean thickness of these thin tephra. These results have implications for the preparation of isopach maps, estimation of tephra volumes and elaboration of the potential consequences of tephra falls.

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