The images are nothing less than astounding – so unreal appearing in fact that the reaction of many people is to conclude they are fake. However, volcano-induced lightning is a very real phenomenon and one that is not well understood.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland erupted last month and that event was followed by a larger eruption on Wednesday, April 14th. While not a big eruption by most standards, volcano-induced lightning was once again photographed.
Images of the light show put on by Eyjafjallajokull were taken by many photographers including the Associated Press as well as astronomer and volcano expert Marco Fulle. Fulle’s images – click here to view them – show lightning shooting from the ash plume as the stars pass overhead in an amazing display of nature’s fury.
In May of 2008 the Chaitén volcano in Chile erupted for the first time in more than 9,000 years. In an impressive explosive eruption, nighttime images taken by Carlos Gutierrez displayed lightning shooting from the rising plume of ash, smoke and steam. So incredible were the images that many believed they were digitally manipulated even prompting myth-busting website Snopes to issue a story explaining that they were real.
Lightning as seen in normal thunderstorms is in most basic terms simply an electrical discharge. Electricity builds within a cloud and once a large enough difference of potential exists, the electricity is discharged in the form of lightning.
What actually causes that initial charge though is still a matter of debate. Many scientists believe that ice particles in a thunderstorm rub together creating the static charge. As the particles separate, the air cannot resist the electrical flow and it is discharged in the form of lightning.
Much like regular lightning, volcano-induced lightning is similarly not well understood but the process is believed to be similar.
Current theory holds that it is the particles contained within an eruption – ash, rock and ice – that rub together creating friction. Static electricity is generated and eventually discharged. Some have termed these events as ‘dirty thunderstorms’.
Get the latest from the Natural Disasters Examiner
Or be notified by email when a new article from the Natural Disasters Examiner is posted. Click the ‘Subscribe’ link at the top or bottom of the article and enter your email address.
Scientists continue to study the phenomenon to better understand how and why it occurs. Last year when Alaska’s Mount Redoubt erupted, scientists were ready and had deployed lightning detectors around the mountain prior to its eruption. They were able to map and document the lightning and are currently analyzing the data and hope to release a research paper on the topic.