What's volcanic lightning? 5 things you need to know about volcanoes

What's volcanic lightning? 5 things you need to know about volcanoes

The errupting Taal Volcano is seen from Tagaytay City
The errupting Taal Volcano is seen from Tagaytay City, Philippines on Jan 13, 2020. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)

MANILA: The eruption of a volcano near the Philippine capital has delivered a dazzling but highly dangerous spectacle since it began spewing superheated steam on Sunday (Jan 12).

Taal volcano's bursts of lightning and monster clouds of ash have drawn crowds of gaping observers, but also prompted thousands to flee from its fury.

Here are five facts about the mix of beauty and terror that volcanoes produce:


Large eruptions sometimes put on a stunning display of lightning strikes that illuminate the massive cloud of ash surrounding them.

This has happened repeatedly above the Taal volcano and been captured in videos shared widely across social media.

It is a relatively unusual and difficult to study phenomenon, so there is some scientific dispute about how and why it happens.

READ: Singaporeans advised to defer travel to area near Taal volcano in the Philippines: MFA

One theory posits that particles bashed together in the chaos of the eruption create static electricity which eventually results in lightning.

Lightning flashes as Taal Volcano rumbles
Lightning flashes as Taal Volcano rumbles on Jan 12, 2020, in Tagaytay, Cavite province. (Photo: AP/Bogie Calupitan)

However, Indriati Retno Palupi, a volcanologist and geologist, told AFP lightning can be created when ashes containing chemical elements react with gasses in the surrounding air.


A violent eruption could trigger a deadly rush of waves by displacing water with rising magma or an avalanche of debris, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).

Philippine authorities have raised an alert for a possible 'explosive eruption' of the
Philippine authorities have raised an alert for a possible 'explosive eruption' of the Taal volcano near Manila. (Photo: AFP/Ted ALJIBE)

In fact, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the US state of Washington produced a 235-metre tsunami, according to the International Tsunami Information Center.

The wall of water was unleashed by the partial collapse of the volcano's flank and a fast-moving avalanche of debris.


Around 1,500 potentially active volcanoes are present around the world, many of which are found on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where tectonic plates collide deep below the earth's surface.

Taal Volcano spews ash and smoke during an eruption
Taal Volcano spews ash and smoke during an eruption as seen from Cavite province, south of Manila, Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: AP/Jogs Danao)

However, around 75 percent of volcanic activity on Earth occurs underwater. Undersea eruptions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say, are "a constant process that shapes the features of the ocean".

Oregon State University geologists estimate there could be as many as a million Called "submarine volcanoes".


The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, about 100 kilometres northwest of Manila, was the Philippines' most powerful in recent years and killed more than 800 people.

However, the eruption had worldwide impact.

pinatubo space shuttle view
Mount Pinatubo as seen from space shuttle Atlantis in 1992. Thick ash and lahar deposits on the volcano and in surrounding river valleys are evident. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide were shot skyward by Pinatubo, which then drifted globally.

"This gas cloud... caused global temperatures to drop temporarily (1991 through 1993) by about 1°F (0.5°C)," according to a US Geological Survey account of the eruption.

Mount Pinatubo volcano
This picture taken Jun 12, 1991 shows a giant mushroom cloud of steam and ash exploding out of Mount Pinatubo volcano during its eruption. (Photo: AFP /Arlan Naeg)

On top of the cooler temperatures, the gases and ash sent high in the sky by Pinatubo also caused "brilliant sunsets and sunrises", USGS said.


Indonesia is the world's most volcanic area.

The Southeast Asian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and islets - and nearly 130 active volcanoes - is situated on the Pacific "Ring of Fire".

Mount Tambora 6
Sunrise over Mount Tambora (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)

In 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa exploded in one of the most violent eruptions in recorded history. An estimated 12,000 people died, while a resulting famine killed another 80,000.

READ: Philippine volcano Taal on alert for "explosive eruption", halting flights at Manila airport

The island of Krakatoa was practically wiped off the map in 1883 by a volcanic explosion so powerful that it was heard some 4,500 kilometres away.

Around 36,000 people were killed in the eruption and the resulting tsunami. A new volcano emerged in 1928 on the same site.

Source: AFP/ic