Paleointensity estimates from ignimbrites: The Bishop Tuff Revisited

Avery, MS, Gee JS, Bowles JA, Jackson MJ.  2018.  Paleointensity estimates from ignimbrites: The Bishop Tuff Revisited. Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems. 19:3811-3831.

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10,000 smokes, ash-flow tuffs, bishop tuff, california, compaction, emplacement, frequency-dependence, Geochemistry & Geophysics, geomagnetic intensity, glass, magnetic-properties, paleointensity, pyroclastic density currents, single-domain, titanomagnetite


Volcanic ash flow tuffs (ignimbrites) may contain single domain-sized (titano) magnetite that should be good for recording geomagnetic field intensity, but due to their complex thermal histories also contain other magnetic grains, which can complicate and obscure paleointensity determination. An initial study of the suitability of the similar to 767ka Bishop Tuff for measuring paleointensity found an internally consistent estimate of 43.03.2T. This initial study also showed a spatial heterogeneity in reliable paleointensity estimates that is possibly associated with vapor-phase alteration and fumarolic activity, which motivated resampling of the Bishop Tuff to examine spatial changes in magnetic properties. Three new stratigraphic sections of the Bishop Tuff within the Owens River gorge were sampled, and the paleointensity results from the initial study in the same locality were reinterpreted. The mean of all sites is 41.911.8T; this agrees with the initial study's finding but with substantially greater scatter. Two sections show evidence of vapor-phase alteration where the presence of titanohematite, likely carrying a thermochemical remanence, produces nonideal behavior. This thermochemical remanence in the upper portion of the section also produces some paleointensity estimates of technically high quality that have significantly higher intensity than the rest of the tuff. Our best estimate for paleointensity, 39.69.9T, comes from the densely welded ignimbrite that was emplaced above the Curie temperature of magnetite. The low permeability of this unit likely shielded it from vapor-phase alteration. Our results suggest that care must be taken in interpreting paleointensity data from large tuffs as nonthermal remanence may be present. Understanding past variations of Earth's magnetic field help us understand processes in Earth's core and help us to better understand current field behavior, which is important to life on Earth. Earth's field is recorded by magnetic-minerals in rocks as they form. Variations in the strength of the magnetic field (paleointensity) are less well known than large variations in direction. This is partially due to the difficulty in identifying rocks that are suitable for paleointensity experiments. Rocks made of volcanic ash (ignimbrites) have been shown to successfully record the field strength during recent volcanic eruptions. However, we show evidence that ignimbrites may not all be suitable for paleointensity studies. The Bishop Tuff, located in eastern California, erupted about 767 thousand years ago, emplacing a large volume (similar to 200km(3), i.e., about 80 million Olympic swimming pools or slightly bigger than Lake Tahoe) of ash and lava over a few days. With samples from the Bishop Tuff we test variations in magnetic-mineralogy that may be related to venting volcanic gas, interaction with water, eruption temperatures, or the degree to which the ash compacted and solidified into rock. These factors affect the magnetic-minerals' ability to record paleointensity and the success rate of our experiments.