• Hydrodynamic equivalence;
  • ignimbrite segregation;
  • polydisperse flow;
  • pyroclastic density current

Abstract Analogue flume experiments were conducted to investigate the transport and sedimentation behaviour of turbulent pyroclastic density currents. The experimental currents were scaled approximately to the natural environment in three ways: (1) they were fully turbulent; (2) they had a very wide range of particle sizes and associated Rouse numbers (the ratio of particle settling velocity to effective turbulent eddy velocity in the current); and (3) they contained particles of two different densities. Two sets of surge-type experiments were conducted in a 5 m long, water-filled lock-exchange flume at five different volumetric particle concentrations from 0·6% to 23%. In one set (one-component experiments), the currents contained just dense particles; in the other set (two-component experiments), they contained both light and dense particles in equal volume proportions. In both sets of experiments, the population of each component had a log-normal size distribution. In the two-component experiments, the size range of the light particle population was selected in order to be in hydrodynamic equivalence with that of the dense particles. Dense particles were normally graded, both vertically and downstream, in the deposits from both sets of experiments. The mass loading (normalized to the initial mass of the suspension) and grain size of the dense component in the deposits decreased with distance from the reservoir and were insensitive to initial total particle concentration in the currents. On the other hand, in the two-component experiments, the light particles were extremely sensitive to concentration. They were deposited in hydrodynamic equivalence with the dense particles from dilute currents, but were segregated efficiently at concentrations higher than a few per cent. With increasing particle concentration, the large, light particles were carried progressively further down the flume because of buoyancy effects. Deposits from the high-concentration currents exhibited reverse vertical grading of the large, light particles. Efficient segregation of the light component was observed even if the bulk density of the current was less than that of the light particles. In both sets of experiments, marked inflexions in the rate of downstream decline in mass loading and maximum grain size of the dense component can be attributed to the presence of two different particle settling regimes in the flow: (1) particles with Rouse numbers >2·5, which did not respond to the turbulence and settled rapidly; and (2) particles with Rouse numbers <2·5, which followed the turbulent eddies and settled slowly. The results are applied to the transport and sedimentation dynamics of pyroclastic density currents that generate large, widespread ignimbrites. Field data fail to reveal significant departures from aerodynamic equivalence between pumice and lithic clasts in three such ignimbrites: the particulate loads of some large ignimbrites are transported principally in turbulent suspensions of low concentration. In some ignimbrites, the well-developed inflexions in curves of maximum lithic (ML) size vs. distance can be attributed to the existence of distinct high and low Rouse number particle settling regimes that mark the transition from an overcharged state to one in which the residual particulate load is transported more effectively by turbulence.