The devasting Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption that happened last month in the Tongan Archipelago generated a deadly tsunami and a plume reaching 55 kilometers (34 miles) up into the mesosphere. This dramatic release of ashes created the perfect condition for another natural phenomenon: volcanic lightning. And this particular eruption was a record-breaker.
According to Finnish environmental technology company, Vaisala, the eruption released almost 590,000 lighting strikes over three days of activity.
During the major eruptive episode on January 15, it released 400,000 lighting strikes. The company’s Global Lightning Detection Network (GLD360) showed a peak of 25,508 lighting strikes in just five minutes. Reuters has created an incredible data visualization of this extreme event.
The Tonga eruption is certainly an outlier when it comes to volcanic lighting, but it is not alone. As smoke and water vapor is thrown vigorously into the atmosphere, it accumulates an electric charge which leads to the formation of lighting.
Just recently, Mount Etna – the large and very active volcano in Sicily – created an electric storm during an eruption.
It is unclear what made the Tonga eruption such a lightning powerhouse – potentially a combination of its power (500 times the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb) and the fact that it came from underwater, lifting a significant amount of water in the atmosphere.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption was the largest volcanic eruption in the 21st century, and its subsequent tsunami cost the lives of five people.