Lab-Made Volcanic Lightning Is a Miniature Terror

Somebody call Harry Dalton or Mike Roark, or really anybody from ’90s volcano films—you know, when eruption movies were at their Dante’s Peak—and tell them we have a situation on our hands: scientists have figured out a way to recreate volcanic ash plumes that discharge lightning, and they are the stuff of nightmares. Tiny, tiny nightmares.

Atlas Obscura reports that a group of scientists led by Corrado Cimarelli at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, have figured out a way to generate volcanic lightning—a.k.a. a “dirty thunderstorm”—in the lab, and their experiment, shown in the above video, is like a science fair volcano that Satan would make (and win first place for).The demonic demonstration simulates the magma chambers of active volcanoes by using a shock tube, which is a heated metal tube that can generate blast waves, drive high-pressure gases, or in this case, move real volcanic ash, taken from Popocatépetl in Mexico and Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, at very high speeds. These high-velocity ash particles collide with such intense friction that they become charged, and what better way to balance out negatively and positively charged particles than to give and take some electrons, which just so happen to rip through the air causing a little lightning show.

Aside from kicking the lava lamp’s butt in terms of whoa, cool dude! factor, the experiment will also hopefully help to keep the skies safer for air traffic by helping scientists to predict just how expansive any given volcanic ash plume is. Better estimations of ash plume sizes are likely thanks to these experiments because the amount of lightning an ash plume creates correlates with its size. As Cimarelli points out in the LMU news release for the experiment, “[lightning] can be measured — from a distance of several kilometers away and under conditions of poor visibility — and it can be used as a proxy to estimate the total… distribution of the ash deposited in the atmosphere… and if necessary alert the aviation authorities.”

But more importantly, what do you, our nerd authorities, think about this dirty thunderstorm? Is this the coolest volcano lab experiment you’ve ever seen? And does dirty thunderstorm sound more like a delicious mixed ice cream treat, or the pièce de résistance of a 7th grade bully? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Images: Corrado Cimarelli

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