Mexico’s Volcán de Colima has been erupting rather spectacularly as of late. This particular mountain has had a long history of violent explosivity, but in the last few years, this stratovolcano has been picking up the pace somewhat by exhibiting near-continuous eruptive activity.
Thankfully, the volcano is being permanently monitored by scientists, emergency services, and webcams. It’s also caught the eye of photographer Sergio Tapiro Velasco, who managed to capture this unbelievably stunning image of volcanic lightning leaping forth from the tip of a plume of ash.
Volcanic lightning is a phenomenon that has yet to be definitively explained. Conventional lightning appears when a layer of warm air mixes with a layer of colder air, normally within clouds. This tends to produce an electrostatic charge, with the upper segment of the cloud having a positive electric charge and the lower segment having a negative one.
For a while, the insulating capacity of the air stops the charge imbalance from correcting itself. When the charge builds up to a certain level, however, the insulation breaks down as a flash of lightning appears, balancing out the charge in the air, albeit temporarily.
Within a volcanic cloud, researchers think that lightning appears from the base of the magma within the volcano’s vent. The churning action seems to electrify the ash and lava blebs floating around in the cloud right above it.
This allows charge to accumulate, and, just like within a normal water cloud, lightning appears when the charge imbalance becomes too strong. Generally speaking, the larger the ash plume, the more frequent the volcanic lightning.
So that’s the basic science that could be behind this beautiful light show. If you want to see it for yourself, we’d suggest going to Japan’s Sakurajima, where you can see it several times a month in some instances.