To many, the Shinmoedake eruptions that started on January 26, 2011, are first and foremost a natural disaster. So far, hundreds of residents have fled the 1,421-meter volcano, belching lava and ashes for the first time in 52 years.
But from a purely aesthetic point of view, the massive eruptions are also examples of great natural art.
Below is a photo and link to a Reuters collection of photographs. Click the photo to see the full slide show on the Reuters website. The photo displays volcanic lightning above Shinmoedake.
Below is a quick breakdown of the process leading to lightning. The walk-through is pretty basic, but if you’ve never thought about why lightning occurs, it might be a good first place to look.
Lightning for beginners
How lightning is formed is still a debated issue and that’s even more true for volcanic lightning. But According to Geology.com, a website created by Hobert M. King, Ph.D. and contributors, it can be explained as a process which ideally occurs in four steps.
The first step of lightning formation is the starting stage. Here, particles in the air are still in a neutral electrical balance.
In the second step particles collide which leads to charge separation — a phenomenon where charges in the air’s particles are driven apart. This is referred to as the electrostatic induction hypothesis, and is — as far as I understand — still a process that lacks a generally accepted explanation.
In the third step of lightning formation the negatively and positively charged particles are sorted, most likely via the aerodynamic “currents” in the atmosphere. At this point one section of the cloud will be more electrically negative than another.
Finally, in the fourth step, lightning occurs. This happens as the clouds even out the electrical imbalance between them. At this point the charge separation has reached a certain critical stage when the electrical imbalance between the clouds has become too strong.