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Tongan Volcano Eruption Produces Record-breaking Lightning Bursts

Hunga volcano's eruption generated over 2,600 lightning flashes per minute, including the largest donut-shaped rings ever seen.

The Tongan volcano eruption produced the most intense burst of lightning ever recorded with 43 flashes per second.

When the Hunga volcano blew its top in January last year it was the largest eruption since Krakatoa in 1883.

Now scientists studying its plume have detected 2,615 flashes of lightning a minute at its height, lasting five minutes.

That’s more than two and a half times the previous record of 993 detected in a storm over the U.S. in 1999.

Also detected were donut-shaped rings of lightning, 174 miles in diameter, the largest ever seen, according to the study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Overall, there were nearly 200,000 lightning flashes in the volcanic plume throughout the eruption, which lasted at least 11 hours, several hours longer than previously known.

When the submarine volcano erupted in the Southern Pacific Ocean, it generated a plume of ash, water and magmatic gas at least 36 miles (58 kilometers) high.

The plume produced the highest-altitude lightning flashes ever measured at 12 to 19 miles (20 to 30 kilometers (98425.2 feet) above sea level.

The team from the US Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory and Los Alamos National Laboratory used space-based optical sensors, and global networks of ground-based radio antennas thousands of miles away to detect the flashes.

Dr. Alexa Van Eaton, a volcanologist at the United States Geological Survey said: “This eruption triggered a supercharged thunderstorm, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

“With this eruption, we discovered that volcanic plumes can create the conditions for lightning far beyond the realm of meteorological thunderstorms we’ve previously observed.

“It turns out, volcanic eruptions can create more extreme lightning than any other kind of storm on Earth.

“The scale of these lightning rings blew our minds.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before, there’s nothing comparable in meteorological storms.

“Single lightning rings have been observed, but not multiples, and they’re tiny by comparison.

“It was like unearthing a dinosaur and seeing it walk around on four legs. It sort of takes your breath away.

“These findings demonstrate a new tool we have to monitor volcanoes at the speed of light and help inform ash hazard advisories to aircraft.”

Powerful volcanic eruptions produce ash plumes that can create their own weather systems, providing the conditions for lightning at higher altitudes than normally seen.

When the undersea volcano in Tonga erupted, it created a plume that went more than 25 miles higher than typical thunderstorms.

Lightning was observed at altitudes 12 to 18 miles up in the stratosphere where the air pressure is too low to support thunderstorm-like lightning.

A volcano eruption with lightning flashes. The volcanic eruption, which lasted at least 11 hours—many more hours than originally thought—featured approximately 200,000 lightning flashes in total. MARC SZEGLAT on Unsplash)

This fast-rising volcanic plume may have created locally higher pressures to support the environment necessary for lightning.

After reaching its maximum height, the plume expanded outward as an umbrella cloud, creating fast-moving circular ripples known as gravity waves, similar to a rock dropped in a pond.

Donut-shaped rings of lightning expanded with the umbrella cloud and were as large as 174 miles in diameter.

Similar “lightning holes” have been observed in thunderstorms, but never on this large a scale.

Dr. Sonja Behnke, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Electromagnetic Sciences and Cognitive Space Applications group and author on the paper said: “The eruption of Hunga Volcano was the largest volcanic explosion since Krakatau in 1883.

“The eruption produced 2,615 flashes per minute at its peak intensity, which lasted nearly five minutes.

“This peak lightning rate is significantly higher than the second most intense lightning event ever detected—993 flashes per minute—in a thunderstorm over the southern United States in 1999.

“Remote detection of lightning helped create a detailed timeline of this historic eruption, and demonstrated the value of using volcanic lightning for monitoring volcanic activity.

“Lightning observations such as these reveal detail about the evolution of an eruption over time, which is particularly valuable when cloud-cover obscures satellite observations of a plume.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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