Lightning Dazzles Onlookers Watching the Eruption of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala

Volcanic lightning is so common that it’s even earned its own nickname: dirty thunderstorms

Side by side of volcano with lightning
Lightning wowed onlookers watching the eruption of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala last month. Johan Wolterink / Instagram

Observers watching the eruption of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala last month were treated to an unexpectedly dazzling show when lightning appeared to strike the active volcano. Videos of the scene have been making the rounds online this week, including one posted with the caption: “What are the odds?”

As it turns out, the odds are pretty good. Any erupting volcano has the potential to produce its own lightning, thanks to the principles of physics.

When volcanoes erupt, they spew gasses, lava, rocks and ash into the air. The ash particles collide with each other and generate static electricity, which can produce lightning.

As the ash particles rub up against one another, their atoms shed or pick up electrons, which creates positively and negatively charged areas of the ash plume, according to the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. The atoms want to maintain a neutral charge, so the excess electrons in the negatively charged part of the plume “jump” across to the positively charged area. This temporarily restores the balance—and produces lightning in the process.

The same thing—known as charge separation—occurs during thunderstorms, only with water and ice particles instead of ash.

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Volcanoes that produce lightning are sometimes referred to as “dirty thunderstorms.” Lightning can also be produced by intense wildfires, hurricanes, snowstorms and surface nuclear detonations, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Lightning is “really common in volcanic plumes,” says Mike Poland, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, to Cowboy State Daily’s Andrew Rossi. “The most intense lightning storms on Earth occur in volcanic clouds.”

Lightning has been spotted during many eruptions—including the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. When the Calbuco volcano in Chile began erupting on April 22, 2015, global lightning sensors detected more than 1,000 strikes. During the June 3, 2018, eruption of Volcán de Fuego, scientists recorded 75 unique lightning strikes over a period of five hours. Last month, the 2,400-foot volcano Mount Ruang erupted multiple times in north-central Indonesia, producing nearly 4,000 lightning strikes.

When the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on January 15, 2022, it produced 2,600 lightning strikes per minute at its peak—the most intense rates ever recorded. It also sent lightning as high as 12 to 19 miles above sea level, which was unusual: Past observations of volcanic lightning had only seen it go up to 11 miles above sea level.

Volcán de Fuego (or the Volcano of Fire) is located roughly 30 miles southwest of Guatemala City, the nation’s capital. It’s a 12,346-foot-tall active stratovolcano that has been “vigorously erupting” since 2002, according to Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Global Volcanism Program.

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