Mechanically weakened alteration zones in lava domes are thought to jeopardize their stability. Such zones can be hazardous when concealed within the dome, either because they formed by subsurface hydrothermal circulation or because they formed on the surface but were subsequently buried by renewed lava extrusion. We present a new suite of computational models showing how the size and position of a weakened brittle zone within a dome can affect large-scale fracture formation, displacement, and the collapse mechanism. By combining recent laboratory data for the mechanical behavior of dome rocks with discrete element method models, we show (1) the presence of a weak zone increases instability, which is exacerbated when the size of the zone increases or the zone is positioned off-center; (2) the position of the weak zone changes the deformation mechanism from slumping-type slope deformation when the zone is positioned centrally, compared with deep-seated rotational slope failure when the zone is positioned toward the dome flank; and finally, (3) dome-cutting tensile fractures form in the presence of a small weak zone (60 m diameter, ~14% of dome width), whereas large weak zones (120 m diameter, ~27% of dome width) promote the formation of longer and deeper fractures that jeopardize larger dome volumes. Our results corroborate previous field observations at lava domes and indicate that large fracture formation, which greatly influences dome stability and outgassing, can be explained by the presence of concealed alteration zones. This improved understanding of the mechanisms responsible for dome instability enables better hazard assessment at volcanoes worldwide.

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