, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 387-432
Date: 20 Jul 2006

Electrification of volcanic plumes

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Volcanic lightning, perhaps the most spectacular consequence of the electrification of volcanic plumes, has been implicated in the origin of life on Earth, and may also exist in other planetary atmospheres. Recent years have seen volcanic lightning detection used as part of a portfolio of developing techniques to monitor volcanic eruptions. Remote sensing measurement techniques have been used to monitor volcanic lightning, but surface observations of the atmospheric electric Potential Gradient (PG) and the charge carried on volcanic ash also show that many volcanic plumes, whilst not sufficiently electrified to produce lightning, have detectable electrification exceeding that of their surrounding environment. Electrification has only been observed associated with ash-rich explosive plumes, but there is little evidence that the composition of the ash is critical to its occurrence. Different conceptual theories for charge generation and separation in volcanic plumes have been developed to explain the disparate observations obtained, but the ash fragmentation mechanism appears to be a key parameter. It is unclear which mechanisms or combinations of electrification mechanisms dominate in different circumstances. Electrostatic forces play an important role in modulating the dry fall-out of ash from a volcanic plume. Beyond the local electrification of plumes, the higher stratospheric particle concentrations following a large explosive eruption may affect the global atmospheric electrical circuit. It is possible that this might present another, if minor, way by which large volcanic eruptions affect global climate. The direct hazard of volcanic lightning to communities is generally low compared to other aspects of volcanic activity.