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2020 volcanic eruption leads to hour-long thunderstorms

Lightning during the Taal eruption. Credit: etrhamjr / Wikimedia Commons

A study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Vaisala Inc., published yesterday in the Geological Society of America’s journal Geology, discusses how advances in global lightning detection have provided new ways to characterize explosive volcanism. Lead author Alexa Van Eaton says: “It’s the perfect storm – explosive eruptions can create lightning that is detected around the world.”

The January 2020 eruption from the Taal volcano in the Philippines showed how a powerful volcanic eruption was electrified, causing thousands of cloud-to-earth lightning strikes over several hours. These flashes allowed researchers to shed light on the behavior of the eruption. “As soon as the volcanic ash flag rose high enough to freeze, its electrical activity turned on our sensors,” Van Eaton says.

Radio waves produced by lightning travel at the speed of light, so unlike other remote sensing tools with longer delay times, “we can receive lightning data super fast,” Van Eaton explains. The researchers also used satellite images and hundreds of photos shared on social media. “The eruption took place in a larger urban area, so people posted pictures of volcanic lightning as it went on.” These photos and videos, write Van Eaton and colleagues, “reveal a highly electrified area at the base of the umbrella cloud.”

In January 2020, the volcano Taal in the Philippines emitted dangerous amounts of volcanic ash and gases. The time series animation shows the growth and spread of the volcanic flag from 12-13. January 2020, as observed by Japan’s Himawari 8 satellite. NASA Earth Observatory image of Lauren Dauphin using OMPS data from the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC). Natural color animation based on Himawari images, courtesy of Japan Meteorological Agency. Credit: Japan Meteorological Agency

“Much more can be done to characterize an eruption when there are camera perspectives from all angles,” Van Eaton says. “And understanding the evolution of volcanic lightning helps us recognize the early warning signs of ash danger to aircraft.” However, remote sensing studies like this “provide only a broad picture of an eruption,” she adds. “Clearly, nothing can replace the work of local geologists who know the area like the back of their hand.”

2020 volcanic eruption leads to hour-long thunderstorms

Snapshots of the Taal volcanic eruption posted on Twitter. Credit: shuajo (@joshibob on Twitter)

One area of ​​interest for future study, Van Eaton notes, is the miniature sparks they observed on images of the ash flag. “We were surprised to see the umbrella cloud at high altitude crawling with these small, blue streamers,” which differ from lightning because they are discharges of cold plasma rather than hot. “It’s still a mystery how these small bands of ionized air relate to powerful lightning.”

On Saturday, January 15, 2022, a massive volcanic eruption from the submarine volcano in Tonga, known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, took place. It sent a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean as a giant ash cloud spread overhead, producing record amounts of volcanic lightning. Van Eaton and colleagues Geology paper explains how such aqueous volcanic tabs become electrically charged.

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More information:

Alexa R. Van Eaton et al., Eruption dynamics leading to a volcanic thunderstorm – January 2020 eruption of the volcano Taal, Philippines, Geology (2022). DOI: 10.1130 / G49490.1

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