In volcanology, an explosive eruption is a volcanic eruption of the most violent type. A notable example is the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Such eruptions result when sufficient gas has dissolved under pressure within a viscous magma such that expelled lava violently froths into volcanic ash when pressure is suddenly lowered at the vent. Sometimes a lava plug will block the conduit to the summit, and when this occurs, eruptions are more violent. Explosive eruptions can send rocks, dust, gas and pyroclastic material up to 20 km (12 mi) into the atmosphere at a rate of up to 100,000 tonnes per second, traveling at several hundred meters per second. This cloud may then collapse, creating a fast-moving pyroclastic flow of hot volcanic matter.
An explosive eruption always begins with some form of blockage in the crater of a volcano that prevents the release of gases trapped in highly viscous andesitic or rhyolitic magma. The high viscosity of these forms of magma prevents the release of trapped gases. The pressure of the flowing magma builds until eventually the blockage is blasted out in an explosive eruption. The pressure from the magma and gases are released through the weakest point in the cone, usually the crater. However, in the case of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, pressure was released on the side of the volcano, rather than the crater.
The sudden release of pressure causes the gases in the magma to suddenly froth and create volcanic ash and pumice, which is then ejected through the volcanic vent to create the signature eruption column commonly associated with explosive eruptions. The size and duration of the column depends on the volume of magma being released and how much pressure the magma was under.
Pyroclastic flows occur towards the end of an explosive eruption, as pressure begins to decline. The eruption column of ash is supported by pressure from the gases being released, and as the gases are depleted, pressure falls and the eruption column begins to collapse. When the column collapses in on itself, ash and rock fall back down to the ground and begin to flow down the slopes of the volcano. These flows can travel at up to 80 km per hour, and reach temperatures of 200° to 700° Celsius. The high temperatures can cause combustion of any flammable materials in its path, including wood, vegetation, and buildings. When snow and ice melt as a part of an eruption, large amounts of water mixed in with the flow can create lahars. The risk of lahars is particularly high on volcanoes such as Mount Rainier near Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.
The eruptions of supervolcanoes are the rarest of volcanic eruptions but also the most destructive. The timescale between these eruptions is generally marked by hundreds or thousands of years. This type of eruption generally causes destruction on a continental scale, and can also result in the lowering of temperatures worldwide.