Several analytical and numerical eruption models have provided insight into volcanic eruption behaviour1-5, but most address plinian-type eruptions where vent conditions are quasi-steady. Only a few studies have explored the physics of short-duration vulcanian explosions6-9 with unsteady vent conditions and blast events10, 11. Here we present a technique that links unsteady vent flux of vulcanian explosions to the resulting dispersal of volcanic ejecta, using a numerical, axisymmetric model with multiple particle sizes. We use observational data from well documented explosions in 1997 at the Soufrière Hills volcano in Montserrat, West Indies, to constrain pre-eruptive subsurface initial conditions and to compare with our simulation results. The resulting simulations duplicate many features of the observed explosions, showing transitional behaviour where mass is divided between a buoyant plume and hazardous radial pyroclastic currents fed by a collapsing fountain12. We find that leakage of volcanic gas from the conduit through surrounding rocks over a short period (of the order of 10 hours) or retarded exsolution can dictate the style of explosion. Our simulations also reveal the internal plume dynamics and particle-size segregation mechanisms that may occur in such eruptions.
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