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The Soufrière Hills Volcano (SHV) crystallizes cristobalite (crystalline silica) in its lava domes, and inhalation of cristobalite-rich ash may pose a chronic respiratory hazard. We investigate the causes of variation in cristobalite abundance (measured by X-ray diffraction) in ash from dome collapses, explosions and ash venting from 1997 to 2010.

Cristobalite abundance in bulk dome-collapse ash varies between 4 and 23 wt%. During periods of slow lava extrusion (<5 m3 s−1), cristobalite is abundant (7–23 wt%), which we attribute to extensive devitrification in slow-cooling lava; it can also form rapidly (15 wt% in 2 months), but we find no correlation between cristobalite abundance and dome residence time (DRT). By contrast, during rapid extrusion (>5 m3 s−1), cristobalite abundance is low (4–7 wt%, similar to that associated with Vulcanian explosions), and correlates strongly with DRT. We attribute this correlation to progressive vapour-phase mineralization or devitrification, and the lack of contamination by older lava. Cristobalite abundance is expected to be >7 wt% for collapse of slowly extruded lava, for ash venting through a dome or for incorporation of hydrothermally altered edifice during explosions; cristobalite abundance is expected to be <7 wt% for collapse of rapidly extruded lava, for ash venting without dome incorporation and from Vulcanian explosions at SHV.

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