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The long-lived (at least 0.78 Ma) Eyjafjallajökull volcano has been constructed during a period of dramatic climatic shifts, and has produced subaerial lavas and cinder cones, pillow lavas, hyaloclastite, monogenetic volcaniclastic sediments and polygenetic glacio-fluvial sediments. Subaqueous lithofacies are dominant and nine distinct cogenetic lithofacies associations are identified within the successions that are interpreted as the proximal deposits of subglacial eruptions. These associations are typically bound by unconformities and lie directly on thin diamictites or glaciated surfaces; epiclastic sedimentary rocks are absent. The lithofacies include subaqueous sheet lava flows, lobate flows, pillow lavas, breccias, hyaloclastite and hyalotuff generated by eruption of mainly basaltic lavas. Lavas associated with massive hyaloclastite breccias commonly lie on or intrude cogenetic redeposited hyalotuff, indicating rapid changes in style of activity from explosive to effusive. This suggests that the vent was initially subaqueous but became subaerial as meltwater drained away down-slope beneath temperate ice sheets. In other instances, probably under thicker ice, the eruptions were effusive throughout but lava was subjected to intense steam explosivity. There is abundant evidence that volcaniclastic material was transported downslope by mass flow, grain flow and traction currents (i.e. by running water). Lithofacies associations that ponded in ice-dammed water commonly comprise thick redeposited tephra overlain by a ‘passage zone’ of hyaloclastite and then subaerial lavas. These deposits are voluminous but conditions suitable for ponding of large volumes of water were not common in the evolution of this large volcano.

During the early stages of volcano growth, eruptive deposits were emplaced on the gentle slopes of the growing cone during both glacial and interglacial periods. Glacial erosion modified the growing edifice and, as a result, younger deposits (<600 ka) tend to be valley-confined. The unconformities produced during glacial advance represent significant time gaps within the succession. Observations support the hypothesis that there were higher volcanic production rates during periods of deglaciation, probably as a result of the rapid decrease in lithostatic pressure as ice melted.

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