Chile Chaiten Volcano Erupts Generating a Spectacular Lightning Storm

Chaiten Volcano, southern Chile, erupts generating an intense electrical storm (UPI)
Chaiten Volcano, southern Chile, erupts generating an intense electrical storm (UPI)

This is quite possibly the most stunning photograph I have seen for a long, long time. In Chile, a volcano has erupted, blasting huge quantities of ash and gas into the atmosphere. As the plume of ejected material rose through the cooler atmosphere, electric charge was built up through electron exchange between plume and surrounding air. The resulting electrical storm produced some terrifyingly beautiful images. Thank goodness I spotted the lead on this story, from a tabloid newspaper in Bristol’s city centre…

It’s one of those iconic media images, something so unworldly and terrifying that it takes some time to understand the scale of what you’re seeing. Sitting outside a pub in glorious (and rare) UK sunlight, flicking through the Daily Mail, I stumbled across page 20 of the tabloid (dated May 7th). A double-page spread of a scene that was more reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. My first thought was that it was some sort of nuclear explosion, but then, on reading the text I realized it was in fact a huge plume of ash and smoke being blasted from the Chilean volcano that had erupted last Friday. But something was strange about the image. A vast quantity of electrical discharge could be seen, lightning strikes threading through the plume and more lightning bolts being emitted by the surrounding cloud cover. I knew this was something special, so I checked to see if the newspaper ran a story online too.

Fortunately they did, and no one else seemed to be following it out of the mainstream UK media. I’ve actually been trying to find a way of including the Chaiten Volcano event in the Universe Today for the last few days, but apart from doing a minor story of an International Space Station snapshot from orbit, I couldn’t find much bulk for the report. The Daily Mail ran some stunning images of the event, but it was the volcano triggered lightning that got me interested. Have a look at the story I ran on the Universe Today (it’s proving to be pretty popular…).

As far as I can see, the violent lightning storm would have been caused by the rapid updraught of hot ash. Friction between the hot cloud and cool surrounding atmosphere would have created a vast charge generator, sparking to life as electrical discharge.

Chaiten Volcano, lightning strikes from atmospheric cloud cover (UPI)
Chaiten Volcano, lightning strikes from atmospheric cloud cover (UPI)

Source: Daily Mail newspaper

27 thoughts on “Chile Chaiten Volcano Erupts Generating a Spectacular Lightning Storm”

  1. Dear Ian: I’ m chilean, I live at the end of the world (Punta Arenas, the southest city of South America) in a country with an extarordinary nature: we have deserts, ice fields, rainy forests, lakes, too many volcanoes and of course small, medium and large eartquakes. We are used to these tragedies, sometimes I wonder how do we do to go on.

    The story you “discovered” on May 7 has not finished, and it is much more terrifing than the pictures you saw: Chaiten volcano had no erupted since 9000 years ago (stablished by Smithsonian Institute). So, only 10 Km far away there is a beautiful village, Chaitén. That area of our country is perhaps one of the most beautiful, so it is visited mainly by non-chilean people (it is quite expensive to arrive there for us). All people of Chaitén, about 4000, were moved to a northern city (Puerto Mont) because of the inminent danger of pyroclastic flow. They were forced to abandon their homes, pets, lands and animals (their main income together with tourism). They abandoned their lives. Now they are devastated in a city they don’t know and they don’t like, with nothing in their hands. Now they can see everyday in the TV how their homes are being destroyed by the growth of the rivers due to the volcano expulsed material. Volcano ashes have covered everything, so life will not be the same for some years. But something touching for me is the fact that the beautiful Chaiten city must dissapear. Because it is so close to this “new for our time” volcano, nobody can live there again. Can you imagine a nice city with two hundred years of life becoming a ghost town??? I still cannot accept that. We use to reconstruct Chile over and over, not to abandone it. Authorities are still discussing what to do with chaiteninos.

    You can follow this story in, or in You will see other pictures of the electric phenomena asociated with Chaiten volcano in It is amazing, atonishing, and why not? it is also beautiful.

    Kind regards,

    Pilar Rivas

  2. I was just outside chaiten at a small lodge on the yelcho river a little over a year ago. we also spent some time at a guide’s home within chaiten. his wife and family were quite friendly, extending us their hospitality. the area is lush, and the mountains filled with glaciers and wildlife. this is a tremendous tragedy.

  3. hello. im a geek and i know everything about volcanoes muhahaahaha. volcanoes can discharge electricity i know everything. hihihihih.

  4. helo im from england and if i saw that in person id be all like, omg marry me cause you know its so cool and colorfull. hahahahahahaha, Hihihihihihihihihihi, ohohohohohohohohohoho,heheheheheheh. love ya.

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