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Electrifying volcano eruption set off the most extreme lightning detected

Image of a huge plume of material erupting from the ocean.

Enlarge (credit: NASA)

When Tonga’s underwater Hunga Tonga volcano lost its temper in an eruption on January 15, 2022, it belched gobs of magma and exhaled clouds of ash and water vapor out of the ocean, triggering intense lightning. This was no ordinary thunderstorm.

Hunga is infamous for its tantrums, but it has outdone itself. That storm now boasts the most lightning ever recorded on Earth. Hanging ominously above the Pacific Ocean was a volcanic cloud lit by concentric rings of lightning that flashed about 192,000 times over the 11 hours that the volcano was active (that’s some 2,615 flashes a minute). Lightning shot up to 30 km (19 miles) high—another record, beating even cyclones and supercells.

Led by volcanologist Alexa Van Eaton of the US Geological Survey, a team of researchers who took a closer look at the observations from the Hunga eruption and ensuing storm found that no one has ever recorded lightning so extreme. “Our findings show that a sufficiently powerful volcanic plume can create its own weather system, sustaining the conditions for electrical activity at heights and rates not previously observed,” Van Eaton and her team said in a study recently published in Geophysical Research Letters.

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