In case you missed it, volcanic tornadoes are real. At the start of June, Anthony Quintano for Honolulu Civil Beat captured a photograph of one drifting around near the hyperactive Fissure 8 on Kilauea’s flanks, and we all basked in its hellish glory.
Rejoice, dear readers, for the superheroes at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have now provided us with some stunning footage of a new volcanic tornado, this time appearing in the well-defined, constantly flowing, lava boat-filled lava channel created by Fissure 8.
Standing at a safe distance, the USGS used a telephoto lens to zoom in on the fiery pandemonium. As you can see in the following video, blebs of lava are being entrained and flung all over the place.
Aesthetically, this is beautiful stuff, but it’s also scientifically intriguing too. As we explained back when the first one was photographed, volcanic tornadoes aren’t quite like conventional tornadoes.
[Ed- if the video isn't showing above you can view it here]
Those more familiar meteorological mischief-makers form when you get a significant updraft of warm air that dumps out a lot of moisture as it cools. This often leads to the development of a thunderstorm, and the rotating winds at height cause the thunderstorm clouds to rotate. Cold air descends, gets focused by the rotation, and boom – you’ve got yourself a tornado.
Volcanic tornadoes are a little more independent than that. The intense heat on the ground – in this case, created by some of the hottest lava on Earth – triggers an updraft. You don’t need a thunderstorm system here, just converging, rotating winds, and if you’re lucky, you get a lava-throwing vortex.
“We see whirlwinds like this quite often in certain conditions,” Robert Ballard, a science and operations officer at the National Weather Service, told IFLScience. “Intense wildfires over the western part of the continental US can create very vigorous, violently billowing giant smoke plumes with strong updrafts and lightning.”
Air rushes in at the surfaces to replace that that’s been violently lifted away. This causes it to spin, creating violent, often short-lived fire whirls.
“We think something similar is happening here [at Kilauea], although to a somewhat smaller and weaker scale,” Ballard added. If you have an upper low pressure zone in the sky, plenty of heat on the ground, you can get that key updraft that gives rise to these beasties. Do they have an official name, though?
Back in June, we semi-jokingly called the phenomenon a lavanado. Turns out the USGS is erring on the more conservative side of things, while harboring rebellion in its ranks.
“We had a lot of discussion about what to call them and the exact scientific name is ‘whirlwind’,” Dr Wendy Stovall, a senior volcanologist with the USGS, told IFLScience. “In the field, geologists were often calling them lavanados. Even though that's not technical, it sure does seem to fit!”
Turns out these whirlwinds have been observed repeatedly over the course of the eruption. They’re not seen above fields of gloopy pahoehoe lava, though, as their crust cools too quickly. The only heat source significant enough is that of the fresh lava within the channel.
That’s not the only type of volcanic weather we’ve seen around Kilauea. That updraft is also creating plenty of pyrocumulus pyrocumulonimbus clouds too, which as we’ve previously explained are essentially lava-sourced thunderstorm clouds.
And that’s not all! “The billowing laze plume at the shoreline has also sometimes been producing weak whirls – perhaps a type of weak waterspout – and there have been reports of static discharges that I've seen described as an extremely weak type of lightning,” Ballard added.
Some of this laze-generated steam is even helping to pump moisture into the sky and making thunderstorms there more severe.
Clearly, Kilauea’s a weather-changing warlock. We, of course, are still #TeamLavanado.