Awesome Volcanic Lightning: How it Forms

New technology which peers inside a volcano’s ash plume is helping scientists understand how volcanic lightning is formed.

For all intents and purposes, lightning is caused by the separation of positively and negatively charged particles in the atmosphere. Once the charge separation becomes large enough to overcome the insulating properties of air, electricity flows in between the positively and negatively charged particles as bolts of lightning, neutralizing the charge.

However, scientists are not exactly sure what causes this most spectacular natural phenomenon called dirty lightning, or better known as, volcanic lightning.

Scientists believe charged particles responsible for volcanic lightning may originate from both the material ejected from the volcano, and through charge formation processes within ash clouds moving through the atmosphere.

Two different phases for the production of volcanic lightning. The first phase, known as the eruptive phase, represents intense lightning forming immediately, or soon after the eruption near the crater. This type of lightning is thought to be caused by positively charged particles ejected from the volcano. The second phase, called the plume phase, represents lightning which forms in the ash plume, at locations downwind of the crater. While the origin of these charged particles for plume lightning is still being investigated.

Whatever the cause is for volcanic lightning, one can not deny the awesome in the effect.


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