The searing hot plumes of ash rising above explosive volcanic blasts often burst with lightning storms, the largest of which rival the most powerful thunderstorms known on Earth. Now the most complete and detailed measurements of volcanic lightning are yielding insights into the roots of these electrical discharges, and could potentially help avert threats to global air traffic.Lightning is often seen crackling in the plumes of explosive volcanic eruptions, such as that of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. However, active volcanoes are often quite remote from civilization and their outbursts are sudden and unpredictable, which is why scientists have rarely investigated the origins of this lightning in detail. Even when scientists can get a close view of eruptions, the intensely murky nature of volcanic clouds hides most of their lightning from view.
Fortunately, due to seismic activity two months in advance of the explosive eruption of Alaska's Mount Redoubt in 2009, scientists were able to install four portable lightning mapping stations around the volcano to monitor lightning during the entire sequence of an eruption for the first time.
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