Why was there so much lightning in the Taal Volcanic eruption?

After a 40-year “sleep”, the mountain suddenly spewed a huge column of smoke and dust accompanied by lightning bolts that lit up the sky on January 12.

Taal Volcano is located about 70km south of the capital Manila. Only after that day the mountain started spewing red lava. Taal is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines. More than 8,000 people have had to leave the island and 6,000 are now safely outside the danger zone.

Taal has erupted more than 30 times over the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. In 1911 an eruption killed 1,500 people and the 1754 eruption lasted for months.

Why was there so much lightning in the Taal Volcanic eruption?
Giant ash column during the eruption of Taal volcano on January 12. (Photo: CNN).

Sonja Behnke, a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory (USA) said that volcanic lightning is a very attractive natural phenomenon. He has also repeatedly observed volcanic lightning in Iceland and Japan.

So how is volcanic lightning formed? As can be seen, volcanic ash first needs an electric charge. When a volcano erupts (as opposed to a lava eruption), it shoots particles of molten rock (magma) into the air to form columns of volcanic ash. In these columns of ash, billions of magma particles begin to collide and rub together creating charged particles. The process is similar to rubbing socks on a carpet, creating an electrical charge.

Volcanic lightning and lightning in storm clouds are both formed by the collision of particles . Instead of ice particles colliding in storm clouds , volcanic lightning is made of magma particles ” , Adam Varble , thunderstorm research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Then, in order to have lightning strikes, the charged magma particles need to separate into different regions in the volcanic ash column. In this chaotic beam, particles of different sizes will fall at different speeds creating different regions of charged particles. Basically, it will create a separate positive and negative region.

When there are two areas of oppositely charged particles, the space in between becomes an electromagnetic field that allows electricity to travel through the air. This is how lightning rays or beams appear in volcanic ash or storm clouds.

Why was there so much lightning in the Taal Volcanic eruption?
A lot of lightning appeared in the Taal volcanic ash column. (Photo: Inquirer).

Lightning in volcanic ash or storm clouds carries a charge of billions of volts. Lightning appears in abundance in the ash of the Taal Volcano eruption because particles shot up very high in the air, then froze and accumulated water. This means that the charged particles are both magma and ice, causing lightning clusters to appear in the Taal volcanic ash column.