A volcano is a sight to be seen, but when volcanic lightning occurs simultaneously, it’s truly something out of a syfi movie—only it’s real.
Volcanoes look wild enough spewing fire, lava and smoke up into the air, but when a storm rages all around, sending bolts of lightning into the smoke plume forming above the explosion, you better go grab your camera.
Volcanic lightening is a rare occurrence that photographers all over the world try and capture, often to no avail. Amazing to witness, science is still trying to understand why volcanic lightening occurs.
According to German nature photographer Martin Rietze, a really huge volcanic explosion is necessary for volcanic lightning to occur. Rietze is always on a mission to photograph volcanic lightning. Just recently he was able to capture a “dirty thunderstorm” in action while visiting the Sakurajima volcano explosion in Japan.
For the last 2 centuries we have been trying to capture footage of volcanic lightening, about once every year we get lucky. Science is equally hampered in its ability to study and understand volcanic lightning.
The rare footage that is available for scientists to study has been pored over to no end. A photo taken of the 1963 Iceland Surtsey volcanic eruption brought about many different theories regarding the origin of volcanic lightning. Such as, the volcano releases a high amount of positively charged material that then comes into contact with oppositely charged energy in the environment, thus producing a lightening bolt.
This made sense because lightning bolts are the universe’s natural way of balancing out 2 opposite electrical charges.
In 2006 photos of lightning over an erupting volcano in Alaska, produced a new realization. In this footage researchers noticed small flashes started near the top of the volcano and then traveled up into the cloud.
This was never witnessed before, and as always-new discoveries lead to new questions. Right now science is working to uncover where do the charges come from, are they present before the volcano explodes, or do they form after the explosion? In other words, what is generating the charge in the first place?
Some volcanic lightning storms are said to have the same intensity as massive storms common to America’s mid western states. Even smaller volcanic eruptions can come with their own storms, but they are petite in size and often unseen behind the clouds that cover the erupting volcano.
So far, science believes there are two different types of volcanic lightning. There are storms that form at the mouth of the erupting volcano, and there are storms that occur higher up, and appear to be swarming the top of the clouds formed by the volcano.
Some volcanoes don’t show flashes of lightening until a few minutes into the eruption. In some cases lightning bolts are up to 2 miles long, meaning something HUGE is taking place to create such a large bolt. While many theories are continually being produced, we haven’t accumulated a real understanding of what causes volcanic lightning.
One theory suggests volcanic lightning occurs because rocks and volcanic ash are charged, and this charge builds up near the mouth of the volcano as they spew out. Others think the flash of lightning has something to do with hot particles full of charge meeting up with the cool air outside of the volcano.
For the most part, science can agree on one thing. Electrically charged particles are split during an eruption, which causes positive and negative charged particles to also split. When the pressure from this separation becomes too much for the air to resist, a bolt of lightning is formed.
We don’t yet know what causes volcanic lightning, and the more eruptions we witness the more we will learn. As of now it seems every volcano is different, meaning the fiery puzzle might be more complex than we assume.