Tephra is unconsolidated pyroclastic material produced by a volcanic eruption. It consists of a variety of materials, typically glassy particles formed by the cooling of droplets of magma, which may be vesicular, solid or flake-like, and a varying proportions of crystalline and mineral components originating from the mountain and the walls of the vent. As the particles fall to the ground, they are sorted to a certain extent by the wind and gravitational forces and form layers of unconsolidated material. The particles are further moved by ground surface or submarine water flow.
The distribution of tephra following an eruption usually involves the largest boulders falling to the ground quickest, therefore closest to the vent, while smaller fragments travel further – ash can often travel for thousands of miles, even circumglobal, as it can stay in the stratosphere for days to weeks following an eruption. When large amounts of tephra accumulate in the atmosphere from massive volcanic eruptions (or from a multitude of smaller eruptions occurring simultaneously), they can reflect light and heat from the sun back through the atmosphere, in some cases causing the temperature to drop, resulting in a temporary “volcanic winter”. The effects of acidic rain and snow, the precipitation caused by tephra discharges into the atmosphere, can be seen for years after the eruptions have stopped. Tephra eruptions can affect ecosystems across millions of square kilometres or even entire continents depending on the size of the eruption.
Tephra fragments are classified by size:
Ash – particles smaller than 2 mm (0.08 inches) in diameter
Lapilli or volcanic cinders – between 2 and 64 mm (0.08 and 2.5 inches) in diameter
Volcanic bombs or volcanic blocks – larger than 64 mm (2.5 inches) in diameter