Volcanoes can make their own weather. If you didn’t know that by now, where’ve you been? You’ve got volcanic lightning and thunder, volcanic fog, pyrocumulus clouds – lava-driven thunderstorm clouds – and more.
Kilauea, not one to shy away from all these meteorological shenanigans, has also recently been spotted producing lavanadoes, otherwise known as volcanic tornadoes.
Now, to be fair, they’re not technically called that. There isn’t actually a term for them at all, and meteorologists and volcanologists have been chatting about what names to give certain phenomena. Considering how things like volcanic fog and volcanic haze become “vog” and “laze”, though, we’d vote for lavanado.
The image of the somewhat rare lavanado on Kilauea’s flanks was first captured by photographer Anthony Quintano of Honolulu Civil Beat. It's since appeared in a few places, including the Washington Post. It’s exactly what it looks like – a spinning vortex of air, flinging lava blebs all over the place as it’s partly fueled by the searing ground beneath it.
This lavanado was spotted near the hardworking Fissure 8 in the Lower East Rift Zone (LERZ). Fairly overactive compared to most of its brethren, this fissure has been tapping deep magmatic sources, generating lava fountains at temperatures of 1,116°C (2,040°F) – pretty much as hot as lava can get.
It’s also generating lava fountains, shooting up into the sky at heights exceeding that of 20-story buildings. In fact, so much lava’s spattering out of this fissure that it’s generating its own cinder cone, a small volcanic mound-like feature.
All this thermal energy is helping to drive the emergence of those aforementioned pyrocumulus clouds, and, as it so happens, a lavanado or two here and there – but how?
Tornadoes, normally, are inextricably linked to the development of thunderstorms.
First, you get an updraft of warm air that dumps plenty of moisture in the sky as it cools. This can lead to the development of a thunderstorm cloud, and the natural rotation of winds at height causes a thunderstorm cloud to rotate. Descending currents of cold, dense air help focus this rotation, and if it’s focused enough, you can get a tornado.
Although Fissure 8 has been spotted creating those thunderstorm-enabling pyrocumulus clouds, this isn’t perhaps what’s generating the lavanado here. Instead, this lavanado is more like a landspout.
The lava is warming the cloud, creating a rising mass of air. According to The Weather Channel, all you need here is a cumulus cloud to exist over a boundary of converging surface winds, with no thunderstorm system required.
“The extreme heat causes the air to rise fast and column of air sometimes begin to rotate and becomes stretched, causing intense rotation,” Wes Callison, a meteorologist, told IFLScience. “Pretty incredible to see!”
He added that they are a lot like firenadoes, which form around wildfires. “I'm not sure of the official term, but I would feel okay calling it a volcanic tornado or volcanic fire whirl.”
It’s important to note, though, that they’re not a threat to anyone. People aren’t allowed anywhere near the fireworks show going on at Fissure 8, and the lavanado would almost certainly dissipate if it moved away from the area.
There’s also no need to worry about the pyrocumulus clouds creating bona fide tornadoes either. As noted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), dust-devil-size vortices have been observed at volcanoes, but no full-scale tornadoes have been spotted.
If you fancy a wetter version, then have a peek off the coast. If you’re lucky, you might see waterspouts forming out there, partly powered by heat loss as lava flows plunge into the sea.