From: National Science Foundation
Published February 19, 2014 09:10 AM

Magma storage at Mount Hood compared to refrigerated peanut butter

New research results suggest that magma sitting 4-5 kilometers beneath the surface of Oregon's Mount Hood has been stored in near-solid conditions for thousands of years. The time it takes to liquefy and potentially erupt, however, is surprisingly short--perhaps as little as a couple of months.

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The key to an eruption, geoscientists say, is to elevate the temperature of the rock to more than 750 degrees Celsius, which can happen when hot magma from deep within the Earth's crust rises to the surface.

It was the mixing of hot liquid lava with cooler solid magma that triggered Mount Hood's last two eruptions about 220 and 1,500 years ago, said Adam Kent, an Oregon State University (OSU) geologist and co-author of a paper reporting the new findings.

"These scientists have used a clever new approach to timing the inner workings of Mount Hood, an important step in assessing volcanic hazards in the Cascades," said Sonia Esperanca, a program director in NSF's Division of Earth Sciences.

"If the temperature of the rock is too cold, the magma is like peanut butter in a refrigerator," Kent said. "It isn't very mobile.

"For Mount Hood, the threshold seems to be about 750 degrees (C)--if it warms up just 50 to 75 degrees above that, it greatly increases the viscosity of the magma and makes it easier to mobilize."

The scientists are interested in the temperature at which magma resides in the crust, since it's likely to have important influence over the timing and types of eruptions that could occur.

The hotter magma from deeper down warms the cooler magma stored at a 4-5 kilometer depth, making it possible for both magmas to mix and be transported to the surface to produce an eruption.

The good news, Kent said, is that Mount Hood's eruptions are not particularly violent. Instead of exploding, the magma tends to ooze out the top of the peak.

A previous study by Kent and OSU researcher Alison Koleszar found that the mixing of the two magma sources, which have different compositions, is both a trigger to an eruption and a constraining factor on how violent it can be.

"What happens when they mix is what happens when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste in the middle," said Kent. "Some comes out the top, but in the case of Mount Hood it doesn't blow the mountain to pieces."

Read more at the NSF Research.gov.

Peanut butter and Mount Hood images via Shutterstock; combined by Robin Blackstone.

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