2020 Volcanic Eruption Leads to Hours-Long Thunderstorm

Boulder, Colo., USA: A study conducted by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the 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 novel 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 of Taal volcano in the Philippines showed how a powerful volcanic eruption becomes electrified, giving off thousands of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes over several hours. Those flashes allow scientists to shed light on the eruption’s behavior. “As soon as the volcanic ash plume rose high enough to freeze, its electrical activity lit up our sensors,” says Van Eaton.

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

“Much more can be done to characterize an eruption when there are camera perspectives from all angles,” says Van Eaton. And understanding the evolution of volcanic lightning helps us recognize the early warning signs of ash hazards to aircraft.” However, remote-sensing studies like this one “only provide a broad-brush picture of an eruption,” says Van Eaton. “It is clear that nothing can replace the work of local geologists who know the area like the backs of their hands.”

An area of interest for future study, notes Van Eaton, is the miniature sparks they observed in photos of the ash plume. “We were surprised to find the high-altitude umbrella cloud crawling with these tiny, blue streamers,” which are distinct from lightning because they are discharges of cold plasma, rather than hot. “It’s still an enigma how these little ribbons of ionized air relate to powerful lightning.”

Note: On Sat., 15 Jan. 2022, a massive volcanic eruption from the submarine volcano in Tonga known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai occurred. It sent a tsunami across the entire Pacific Ocean while a giant ash cloud spread out overhead, producing record-breaking amounts of volcanic lightning. Van Eaton and colleagues’ Geology paper explains how such water-rich volcanic plumes become electrically charged.

Eruption dynamics leading to a volcanic thunderstorm—The January 2020 eruption of Taal volcano, Philippines
Alexa Van Eaton; Michael Pavolonis; Ryan Said; Cassandra Smith
Contact: Alexa Van Eaton, avaneaton@usgs.gov, U.S. Geological Survey, Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Washington

GEOLOGY articles are online at https://geology.geoscienceworld.org/content/early/recent . Representatives of the media may obtain complimentary articles by contacting Kea Giles at the e-mail address above. Please discuss articles of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work, and please make reference to GEOLOGY in articles published. Non-media requests for articles may be directed to GSA Sales and Service, gsaservice@geosociety.org.


# # #

For Immediate Release
19 January 2022
GSA Release No. 22-04

Kea Giles

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

Taal lightning closeup

Twitter snapshots of Taal lightning
Snapshots of the Taal Volcano eruption posted on Twitter by shuajo, Twitter handle @joshibob.

lighting photo Taal eruption
Photo of lightning during the Taal eruption by etrhamjr via Wikimedia Commons.