Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruption produced record-breaking lightning

Researchers found over 200,000 flashes of lightning during the Hunga volcano eruption in 2022, with as many as 2,600 flashes a minute at its peak.
John Loeffler
Lightning during the Hunga volcano eruption in Tonga on January 15, 2022
Lightning during the Hunga volcano eruption in Tonga on January 15, 2022

NIWA New Zealand / YouTube 

The eruption of the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcano in the Tonga archipelago was one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in modern history, and the most powerful ever recorded by modern equipment; so much so that it produced the most intense lightning event ever seen.

When the Hunga volcano finally erupted on January 15, 2022, after weeks of rumbling, it produced a spectacular, towering cloud of ash that generated over 200,000 flashes of lightning over the 11 hours of the eruption, according to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“This eruption triggered a supercharged thunderstorm, the likes of which we’ve never seen,” Alexa Van Eaton, a US Geological Survey volcanologist who led the study, said in a statement. “These findings demonstrate a new tool we have to monitor volcanoes at the speed of light and help the USGS’s role to inform ash hazard advisories to aircraft.”

“With this eruption, we discovered that volcanic plumes can create the conditions for lightning far beyond the realm of meteorological thunderstorms we’ve previously observed,” Van Eaton said. “It turns out, volcanic eruptions can create more extreme lightning than any other kind of storm on Earth.”

It turns out that the lightning also revealed more about the eruption itself than was previously understood, specifically that it lasted much longer than initially thought.

“The eruption lasted much longer than the hour or two initially observed,” Van Eaton said. “The January 15 activity created volcanic plumes for at least 11 hours. It was really only from looking at the lightning data that we were able to pull that out.”

In total, there were four phases of the eruption, depending on the plume height and the intensity of the lightning flashes. Hopefully, this connection between eruption activity and lightning will allow better modeling of eruptions for ash dispersal to better manage air traffic around eruptions. 

“It wasn’t just the lightning intensity that drew us in,” Van Eaton said. 

The researchers found that the lightning flashes came in expanding and contracting concentric rings that centered on the eruption source.

“The scale of these lightning rings blew our minds. We’ve never seen anything like that before, there’s nothing comparable in meteorological storms. Single lightning rings have been observed, but not multiples, and they’re tiny by comparison.”

The new study proved to be a humbling experience for the researchers.

“It was like unearthing a dinosaur and seeing it walk around on four legs,” Van Eaton said. “Sort of takes your breath away.”

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