Red-hot lava, suffocating ash clouds and ear-splitting explosions: volcanoes assault the senses in a BIG way. Now you can add lightning to nature’s igneous arsenal, as advances in modern high-speed photography have enabled scientists to document the beauty and wonder of volcanic lightning in all its ex-static glory.
Chaitén Volcano, Chile
When Chile’s Chaitén volcano awoke from a 9,500 year long slumber on May 2, 2008, it did so in a big way. Within days, the volcano that stands 1,122 meters (3,681 ft) above sea level had expelled a 30,000 meters (98,000 ft) tall ash cloud into the formerly clear Andean air. Easily visible from space, the cloud was blown south-east by upper level winds across the entire width of neighboring Argentina, to finally dissipate over the South Atlantic ocean.
(image via: Quality Junkyard)
Chaitén isn’t especially tall as volcanoes go, but it made up for its stature with one of the most electrifying displays of volcanic lightning ever seen. Volcanologists aren’t exactly sure what causes volcanic lightning due to the difficulty of installing sensors in such a hostile environment, but it’s thought that static charges in the swirling clouds of ash build up to immense levels until they’re released as visible lightning.
Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland
On March 20, 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano roared into action for the first time since 1823, it did more than disrupt air travel across a good portion of Europe: it provided photographers with an excellent opportunity to record some spectacular scenes of volcanic lightning.
Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption was primarily ash with relatively low amounts of flowing lava. Tick, massive ash clouds brought darkness to areas of southern Iceland only relieved by copious flickers and flashes of volcanic lightning.
(image via: NASA/APOD)
Though the most active phase of Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption only lasted about 2 months, volcanologists are waiting for the other show to fall. Historic records three major eruptions of the nearby Katla volcano which followed Eyjafjallajökull’s eruptions in 920, 1612, and 1821-23. Should Katla blow, it’ll make Eyjafjallajökull look small.
Mt. Vesuvius, Italy
Mount Vesuvius, located about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) east of Naples, Italy, is one of the world’s most famous – and most dangerous – volcanoes. The mountain has erupted dozens of times since the catastrophic destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, most recently in the spring of 1944 when dozens of American bombers were damaged or destroyed by falling ash and red-hot rocks.
(image via: Muse On News)
Vesuvius has erupted with some regularity over the course of recorded history with 8 eruptions occurring in the 19th century and 3 more in the 20th. Ominously, longer periods of quiet have led to stronger, more explosive eruptions – and today several million people live within close proximity to the volcano’s crater and slopes.
Mt. Sakurajima, Japan
Sakurajima is a composite volcano with three peaks located in Kagoshima Bay, just south of the Japanese city of Kagoshima. Formerly an island, Sakurajima’s 1914 eruption produced lava flows over a period of months, eventually joining the island to the mainland. In 1955, Sakurajima entered a period of heightened activity and in 2010 it erupted spectacularly to the delight of volcano geeks the world over.
Check out the following video, taken on February 8, 2010, which shows Sakurajima shooting an incandescent spire of molten rock thousands of feet into the sky accompanied by brilliant flashes of lightning:
(image via: The Matrix Data Bank)
Sakurajima draws from the same reservoir of magma that supplied a massive volcano that erupted explosively 22,000 years ago, forming the 17 by 23 km (10.5 by 14.3 mile) wide Aira caldera. An eruption on a similar scale today would cause the loss of lives and livelihoods at an unmeasurable scale.
Tavurvur, Papua New Guinea
Tavurvur is one of several active volcanoes occupying the Rabaul caldera on New Britain, a sickle-shaped island just east of Papua New Guinea. In 1994 Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted simultaneously – of the five people killed during the eruptions, one was struck by volcanic lightning.
(image via: Pictopia)
Tarvurvur may not be well known due to its relative isolation but its eruptions can be epic in scope. In 1937, a double eruption of Tarvurvur and Vulcan killed over 500 people while a 2006 eruption led off with an explosion that shattered windows up to 12 kilometers (7.45 miles) away. Tarvurvur’s most recent eruption was in January of 2009 but if history is any indication, another one won’t be long in coming.
Mt. Redoubt, Alaska, USA
Mount Redoubt, located approximately 180 km (110 miles) southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, is a 9,000 ft (2,700 m) high stratovolcano prone to violent eruptions. Mount Redoubt has been active for thousands of years and has erupted no less than four times in the 20th century. It’s most recent eruption was in early 2009.
(image via: LiveScience)
An expedition dedicated to unlocking the mystery of volcanic lightning hit paydirt in March of 2009 when Mount Redoubt, obviously ready for its close-up, put on a spectacular sound and light show. “The lightning activity was as strong or stronger than we have seen in large Midwestern thunderstorms,” said physicist Paul Krehbiel of New Mexico Tech. “The radio frequency noise was so strong and continuous that people living in the area would not have been able to watch broadcast VHF television stations.”
Mt. Shinmoedake, Japan
Mount Shinmoedake, part of the Kirishima cluster of volcanoes in southwestern Japan, began erupting explosively in late January of 2011. The new eruption is the largest since 1959 and is the third major eruption this century. The volcano is currently expelling massive clouds of thick, roiling ash – at night these clouds are lit up by bright, blue-white lightning bolts.
Here’s a short video showcasing some of Mount Shinmoedake’s latest pyrotechnics:
(image via: Reuters)
Mount Shinmoedake has another claim to fame: it was the location of SPECTRE’s headquarters in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. One thing’s for certain: this is one volcano that’ll leave you shaken AND stirred!
(image via: Volcano Discovery)
We’ll close this post with an electrifying image of Anak Krakatau, the steadily growing successor to Krakatoa (which exploded catastrophically, “East of Java”, in 1883). The “Child of Krakatoa” first appeared in 1927 and its eruptions have grown more powerful as time goes by. The above image, taken in November of 2010, may foreshadow the future… will the son follow in the footsteps of his father? The answer might be… en-lightning.