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Barcroft TV, Youtube

The Science Behind Super Rare (and Totally Amazing) Volcanic Lightning

Barcroft TV, Youtube
Barcroft TV, Youtube

Recently, a viral video of rare volcanic lightning footage has been making the rounds on social media. It’s easy to see why. The dramatic clip appears to show flecks of lightning dancing though an ominous volcanic plume, the likes of which most viewers have never seen. Make that all viewers, actually: As it turns out, the clip was actually doctored by the BBC, which combined footage from two separate eruptions for a scene in their hit series Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise.

Nonetheless, volcanic lightning—a phenomenon that’s also known as a “dirty thunderstorm”—is still very real. Here’s what the incredible display actually looks like:

Back in March, German photographer Marc Szeglat captured the spectacle above, which is the Sakurajima volcano, located on Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island. (Before 1914, the volcano sat on a smaller island named Sakurajima, but a huge eruption that year merged the landmass with Kyushu proper.)

A seasoned volcano photographer, Szeglat set out to document a Sakurajima blast and, in the process, also captured one of nature’s most mysterious wonders. At 2:05 in the video, you can see a lightning bolt zig-zagging across the eruption’s ashy mushroom cloud. 

What’s going on here? Believe it or not, some volcano-generated plumes are capable of creating powerful electrical charges that can lead to streaks of lightning, and bolts as large as two miles long.

As Szeglat explained to the BBC, “In a normal thunderstorm ice crystals collide and generate electrical charges, which results in lightning. In an eruption cloud, ash particles collide instead of ice crystals.”

But how do these particle collisions actually produce lightning? Experts aren’t entirely sure. “How lightning forms in general is still debated among scientists,” writes geologist Brentwood Higman on Geology.com, “and volcanic lightning is even less well understood.”

Still, we can say with reasonable certainty that all dirty thunderstorms require what’s known as a pyroclastic flow—fast-moving volcanic currents consisting of hot gas, rock fragments, and ash.  They’re also incredibly dangerous, as the billowing clouds tend to “hug” the ground and bury everything in their path. Such flows famously descended upon Pompeii in 79 CE, while others surged forth from Mount St. Helens during its sky-darkening 1980 eruption

As tiny particles are kicked into the atmosphere, they begin to move apart or split in two. The positively charged particles separate from their negatively charged brethren, and eventually build up enough attraction to cause a serious spark. According to Higman, “Lightning is the electrical flow that results when this charge separation becomes too great for air to resist the flow of electricity.”

Well-documented dirty thunderstorms broke out at Mount Redoubt of Alaska in 2009 and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Masses of round, glassy beads were later discovered at both sites, and earlier this year, an international scientific team concluded that the spherules had been forged by volcanic lightning. In theory, the incredibly hot bolts (whose scalding temperatures can reach 30,000°C) melted down pieces of ash which then re-solidified as little glass balls. 

Recent research also suggests that volcanic lightning bolts come in at least two distinct types. Some—like these—dart about near the tops of plumes. Meanwhile, others simply hang around the volcano’s mouth.

Volcanic lightning storms can also demonstrate the kind of intensity that’s normally reserved for Midwestern tempests. Unfortunately, filming them in action has proven exceptionally difficult, with flashes of lightning being too quick for most recording devices. So while the BBC did embellish that footage, it's likely that a "super-charged volcanic ash cloud" (!) could really be that spectacular—we'd just have to record it first to see.

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9 'Scientific Mysteries' the Internet Loves, Debunked
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Whether it involves aliens, moving rocks, or crop circles, no one loves a scientific mystery like the internet—even if that "mystery" was solved years ago using all of the rigors of science. Here are 10 so-called mysteries that the global online community can't bear to part with, debunked once and for all (we hope).

1. KUMMAKIVI BALANCING ROCK // RUOKOLAHTI, FINLAND

The "Mystery": This so-called "strange rock" is a balancing act comprised of two rocks, one teetering precipitously on top of the other. Locals of ancient yesteryear, apparently perplexed to discover that the top rock was in no danger of sliding off the bottom rock despite the extremely small point of contact between them—and was, in fact, too heavy to be moved at all—decided giants tossing boulders explained the phenomenon. "And it's true," one theorist wrote: "There is still no exact scientific explanation, but contrary to the laws of physics, the stone stands quite firmly and human strength is not enough to move it."

Science Says: It's not true, actually. Geologists put forward a much more likely cause for this balancing rock and the countless others that exist worldwide: Melting glaciers deposited them where they currently squat.

2. FAIRY CIRCLES // NAMIBIA

geographic features called fairy circles in namibia, created by termites and plants
iStock

The "Mystery": Are they footprints of the gods? Barren patches caused by a dragon's fiery breath? Marks left behind by UFOs? All of these ideas were perpetuated by the internet after tour guides in the region passed them on to tourists, according to The New York Times. The scientific community was pretty sure the dirt circles found in the Namib Desert were none of those things, even though they were hard-pressed to come up with a more logical explanation—until recently.

Science Says: Research published in 2017 suggests that they're the work of colonies of termites, which clear circular patches around their nests; the barrenness of these shapes is possibly enhanced by plants as they stretch their roots to reach scarce water—which prevents other plants from growing in the process.

3. KLERKSDORP SPHERES // OTTOSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA

klerksdorp sphere
Robert Huggett

The "Mystery": These grooved spheres have been the subject of many strange theories, most revolving around the existence of intelligent aliens who made the pod-like trinkets—which apparently can rotate on their axes—using intelligent alien technology and otherworldly metals some 3 billion years ago. Virtuescience.com has proposed a whole host of theories about the spheres' uses, including ancient ammunition, messages from space, and currency.

Science Says: Geologists have a more tempered explanation for how the spheres came to be: They're concretions—little balls of rock that have grown around a core object—of the minerals hematite, wollastonite, or pyrite that have hardened over time in nests of volcanic ash or sediment. The myth of alien metalworking skills was debunked back in 1996, but it still resurfaces every once in a while.

4. WEBDRIVER TORSO // YOUTUBE

The "Mystery": The Webdriver Torso YouTube account has been freaking out the internet with its videos for several years. Commentors posited that the videos—which were usually 11 seconds long and featured colored rectangles moving around on a white screen—were spy code, alien code, or recruitment searches for expert hackers. At the channel's peak, videos were uploaded as often as every two minutes.

Science Says: Google revealed in 2014 that they were simply video clips the company had created to test the quality of YouTube videos. "We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality," the company told Engadget in a statement/Rickroll. "That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso." Conspiracy theorists, however, pointing out that videos had been uploaded elsewhere before Google took credit for the channel, continued to suspect darker intentions. One reddit user posited in 2015 that Google "could … have a secret agenda." Maybe Google wants this chatter to continue: Even today, googling "Webdriver Torso" will yield an easter egg.

5. SAILING STONES // DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

Sailing stones of Death Valley National Park
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The "Mystery": Known alternately as sliding, walking, or moving rocks, for more than 100 years these so-called "living stones" have seemingly slid across the floor of a dry lake bed all on their own, leaving trails of their movements—and causing plenty of speculation. Magnetic force is one popular theory, along with psychic energy and the interventions of alien spacecraft. Some claim a 700-pound stone named Karen disappeared for two years, only to somehow reappear again.

Science Says: In 2014, scientists studied the situation and discovered that the stones move when the lake bed they rest on becomes covered with rainwater that freezes overnight into a sheet of ice; when the ice melts, it pushes the rocks here and there—assisted by Death Valley's powerful winds. (No word on what Karen's been up to, though.)

6. NAZCA LINES // NAZCA, PERU

Aerial view of a geoglyph representing a Duck or a Dinosaurius at Nazca Lines
Martin Bernetti, AFP/Getty Images

The "Mystery": If conspiracy theorists like aliens, they love ancient aliens. When it comes to the Nazca lines, they speculate that ancient astronauts from outer space drew almost 1200 geometric, animal, and plant shapes in a vast, arid plateau on Peru's Pampas de Jumana. Ranker.com also purports that the designs were made by humans, "most likely to signal extraterrestrials," and possibly to provide a runway for their space ships.

Science Says: The truth—which has been known since at least the 1940s—is that the figures were created 1500 to 2000 years ago by the Nazca people, who removed rocks and/or a portion of topsoil to create an image in negative. At first, scientists believed the figures were astronomical symbols, or an early sort of calendar, but later research indicated the drawings were used ritualistically, in ceremonies involving the quest for scarce water.

7. BERMUDA TRIANGLE // ATLANTIC OCEAN

aerial view of bermuda

Peter Burka, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The "Mystery": Three hundred ships and planes, all supposedly sunk or gone missing in the same general area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: The Bermuda Triangle (so-named by pulp writer Vincent Gaddis in 1964) has had conspiracy theorists of all stripes spouting endless theories for years. Atlantis! Alien interventions! An opening in the fabric of the universe! Attack by sea monsters! A popular theory in the 1970s involved magnetism wreaking havoc on navigational devices, and one more recent theory suggested that bursting bubbles of methane gas were responsible for missing craft. Online speculations, like this one from BuzzFeedBlue, attempt to stoke the (nonexistent) fire.

Science Says: This has been settled for decades—there is no mystery. In 1975, librarian turned investigative author Larry Kusche unearthed the actual facts: Some "missing" vessels were simply made up; some sank far from the Triangle; and others along the route—which is still heavily trafficked today—fell prey to the region's frequent bad storms.

8. CROP CIRCLES // BRITAIN

The "Mystery": A lot of otherworldly meaning has been ascribed to these designs squished into fields of wheat, rapeseed, and barley. Once again, aliens—mathematical-genius aliens this time—are said to be responsible for them, hiding complicated messages in the circles' sometimes intricate imagery. Others suggest they're spiritual centers that beam energy. In the video above, a farmer who found an intricate crop spiral in his field says, "I don't know what caused it, but I'm not sure that it was made by people."

Science Says: The truth is simple, and perhaps disappointing, which may explain why the alien theory never seems to die: The circles are made under cover of darkness by people, sometimes with the permission of the farmers whose land they're created on. They use measuring devices, rollers, and other low-tech gear to push patterns into grain.

9. ATA THE MUMMY // ATACAMA, CHILE

The "Mystery": When a small, oddly shaped, strangely featured mummy was discovered in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003, some on the internet called it proof that beings from space had once lived among humans—and perhaps even mated with them. The mummy had 10 ribs instead of the typical 12; a strangely sloped head; and at just 6 inches long, was fetus-sized, but its bones were as dense as a child's. Some thought that the 9 percent of the mummy's DNA that didn't match the human DNA they compared it to was further evidence of its non-human origins. As UFO/ET conspiracy theorist Steven Greer says in the above clip, "Is that all computer read error? Maybe. Is it what's called DNA junk? Perhaps. We don't know."

Science Says: Testing of Ata's genome destroyed these theories, proving that Ata was 100 percent human and died, likely in utero, from genetic defects. Many of these mutations related to bone development, explaining her missing ribs and thick bones. Exposure to nitrate-contaminated drinking water may have been a factor in her deformations as well. And that 9 percent genetic difference? Standard contamination of a mummy that was exposed to the open air.

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High-Speed Railway Project Uncovers a Prehistoric Coastline Near London
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iStock

UK engineers have discovered evidence of a prehistoric coastline just outside London while preparing for a new high-speed railway, The Guardian reports.

The UK government has been analyzing the ground at the proposed locations for the railway, HS2, since 2015. Engineers are using radar, taking core samples, and digging pits before Phase 1 of construction. While evaluating the site of a future tunnel, geologists found signs that the site in the West London area of Ruislip was once a coastal marsh. Almost 110 feet under the ground, they discovered black clay they believe was formed from wooded swampland on the coast of a subtropical sea.

soil specimens from 56 million years ago
HS2

The unusually well-preserved layer of clay, which features traces of vegetation, dates back to around 56 million years ago, when Great Britain was partially covered by a warm sea. Less than 200 feet away from where the black clay was discovered, the layer of earth at the same depth is made of sand and gravel, likely deposited by the sea.

"Although ground investigations regularly take place across the country, it's really exciting and very unusual to come across a material that no one has ever seen before," geological expert Jacqueline Skipper said in a press release from HS2. "The 'Ruislip Bed' discovery is particularly fascinating, as it is a window into our geological history." While researchers knew that much of England was underwater during this period, this evidence helps them pinpoint exactly where that sea began.

[h/t The Guardian]

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