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