Diagram of a Plinian eruption. (key: 1. Ash plume 2. Magma conduit 3. Volcanic ash rain 4. Layers of lava and ash 5. Stratum 6. Magma chamber)
Plinian eruptions (or Vesuvian) are a type of volcanic eruption, named for the historical eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 of Mount Vesuvius that buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and specifically for its chronicler Pliny the Younger. The process powering Plinian eruptions starts in the magma chamber, where dissolved volatile gases are stored in the magma. The gases vesiculate and accumulate as they rise through the magma conduit. These bubbles agglutinate and once they reach a certain size (about 75% of the total volume of the magma conduit) they explode. The narrow confines of the conduit force the gases and associated magma up, forming an eruptive column. Eruption velocity is controlled by the gas contents of the column, and low-strength surface rocks commonly crack under the pressure of the eruption, forming a flared outgoing structure that pushes the gases even faster.
These massive eruptive columns are the distinctive feature of a Plinian eruption, and reach up 2 to 45 km (1 to 28 mi) into the atmosphere. The densest part of the plume, directly above the volcano, is driven internally by gas expansion. As it reaches higher into the air the plume expands and becomes less dense, convection and thermal expansion of volcanic ash drive it even further up into the stratosphere. At the top of the plume, powerful prevailing winds drive the plume in a direction away from the volcano.
These highly explosive eruptions are associated with volatile-rich dacitic to rhyolitic lavas, and occur most typically at stratovolcanoes. Eruptions can last anywhere from hours to days, with longer eruptions being associated with more felsic volcanoes. Although they are associated with felsic magma, Plinian eruptions can just as well occur at basaltic volcanoes, given that the magma chamber differentiates and has a structure rich in silicon dioxide.
Plinian eruptions are similar to both Vulcanian and Strombolian eruptions, except that rather than creating discrete explosive events, Plinian eruptions form sustained eruptive columns. They are also similar to Hawaiian lava fountains in that both eruptive types produce sustained eruption columns maintained by the growth of bubbles that move up at about the same speed as the magma surrounding them.
Regions affected by Plinian eruptions are subjected to heavy pumice airfall affecting an area 0.5 to 50 km3 (0 to 12 cu mi) in size.The m aterial in the ash plume eventually finds its way back to the ground, covering the landscape in a thick layer of many cubic kilometers of ash.
However the most dangerous eruptive feature are the pyroclastic flows generated by material collapse, which move down the side of the mountain at extreme speeds of up to 700 km (435 mi) per hour and with the ability to extend the reach of the eruption hundreds of kilometers. The ejection of hot material from the volcano's summit melts snowbanks and ice deposits on the volcano, which mixes with tephra to form lahars, fast moving mudslides with the consistency of wet concrete that move at the speed of a river rapid.
Major Plinian eruptive events include: