pyroclastic flow, turbulent, fluidized mixture of rock, volcanic ash, and hot gas that moves like an avalanche away from a volcanic eruption. A pyroclastic flow may contain a mix of rock fragments ranging up to the size of boulders, with the heavier fragments moving along closer to the ground. The hot, expanding gases suspend ash and smaller rock particles, which can then support larger rock fragments; a lack of friction among the particles enables the mixture to travel great distances.
A flow may result from the collapse of the eruption column of a volcano or the collapse of a lava dome or lava flow. Flows that result from an eruption-column collapse are dominated by pumice and move more rapidly; flows can travel as fast as 100 mph (160 kph), reach temperatures that exceed 900°F (500°C), and in some instances climb slopes and cross stretches of open water. The speed at which they move, the heat and toxicity of their gases, and the debris that they carry make pyroclastic flows extremely destructive and deadly. A pyroclastic flow from the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée on Martinique killed nearly all of the 28,000 inhabitants of Saint-Pierre.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.