"Teeny little sparks" over volcano identified as new lightning type

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Washington, Feb 5 (ANI): Scientists are reporting a new type of lightning type over a volcano that can be as short as about 3 feet long and last just a few milliseconds.

According to a report in National Geographic News, advanced instruments and a two-month heads-up allowed researchers to finally confirm the "teeny little sparks" during a recent eruption of Alaska's Redoubt Volcano.

When Redoubt first began to rumble in late January 2009, volcanic seismologist Steve McNutt and colleagues scrambled to install various instruments near the volcano's vents.

Their quick efforts yielded unprecedented data when the mountain finally blew its top in March 2009.

McNutt, of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, had observed similar sparks during a 2006 eruption of Alaska's Augustine Volcano.

"The Redoubt Volcano data confirms the lightning's existence," he said.

The newfound bolts join two other types of volcanic lightning, namely, large, spectacular "natural fireworks" that sometimes accompany eruptions and an intermediate type, which shoots up from a volcano's vents and reaches a length of about 1.8 miles (3 kilometers).

Both types of bigger, more obvious bolts occur when water droplets and ice particles interact with the volcano's plume of electrically charged ash, creating a sort of "dirty thunderstorm," according to McNutt.

"It's unknown how the smaller sparks form, though one possibility is that electrically charged silica-an ingredient of magma-interacts with the atmosphere when it bursts out of Earth's crust," he said.

Still, it's hard to say if the sparks indeed represent a new type of lightning, noted Martin Uman, a lightning expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

That's because lightning-basically any discharge of electricity-has no scientific definition.

"Pretty much any spark, from the static shock you get from touching a doorknob to the giant bolts that light up Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere, could be considered lightning," said Uman.

No matter what you call them, the tiny sparks near volcanoes' vents may offer a safety benefit, added Uman.

"When a volcano gives off a hint of an impending eruption-called a precursor event-scientists could set up instruments near the vents to detect sparks as an eruption begins, which would then alert officials even sooner," he said.

Such a warning could be critical for air traffic, since ash emitted by volcanoes is especially hazardous to jet engines. (ANI)

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