Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 72, Issue 10, pp 1153–1167 | Cite as

Volcanic lightning: global observations and constraints on source mechanisms

  • Stephen R. McNutt
  • Earle R. Williams
Research Article


Lightning and electrification at volcanoes are important because they represent a hazard in their own right, they are a component of the global electrical circuit, and because they contribute to ash particle aggregation and modification within ash plumes. The role of water substance (water in all forms) in particular has not been well studied. Here data are presented from a comprehensive global database of volcanic lightning. Lightning has been documented at 80 volcanoes in association with 212 eruptions. The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) could be determined for 177 eruptions. Eight percent of VEI = 3–5 eruptions have reported lightning, and 10% of VEI = 6, but less than 2% of those with VEI = 1–2. These findings suggest consistent reporting for larger eruptions but either less lightning or possible under-reporting for small eruptions. Ash plume heights (142 observations) show a bimodal distribution with main peaks at 7–12 km and 1–4 km. The former are similar to heights of typical thunderstorms and suggest involvement of water substance, whereas the latter suggest other factors contributing to electrical behavior closer to the vent. Reporting of lightning is more common at night (56%) and less common in daylight (44%). Reporting also varied substantially from year to year, suggesting that a more systematic observational strategy is needed. Several weak trends in lightning occurrence based on magma composition were found. The bimodal ash plume heights are obvious only for andesite to dacite; basalt and basaltic-andesite evenly span the range of heights; and rhyolites are poorly represented. The distributions of the latitudes of volcanoes with lightning and eruptions with lightning roughly mimic the distribution of all volcanoes, which is generally flat with latitude. Meteorological lightning, on the other hand, is common in the tropics and decreases markedly with increasing latitude as the ability of the atmosphere to hold water decreases poleward. This finding supports the idea that if lightning in large (deep) eruptions depends on water substance, then the origin of the water is primarily magma and not entrainment from the surrounding atmosphere. Seasonal effects show that more eruptions with lightning were reported in winter (bounded by the respective autumnal and vernal equinoxes) than in summer. This result also runs counter to the expectations based on entrainment of local water vapor.


Volcanoes Lightning Electrification Ash plumes Water 



Discussions on this subject with RV Anderson, P Arason, M Baker, D Blanchard, CGJ Ernst, J Gilbert, T Grove, P Herzegh, R Hoblitt, P Hobbs, C Kessinger, P Krehbiel, T Mather, J Murray, C Newhall, A Oswalt, D Pack, C Rice, W Rison, W Rose, D Schneider, T Simkin, C Textor, R Thomas, A Tupper, J Ewert, and R Wunderman are gratefully acknowledged. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments which helped to improve the manuscript. ERW’s work on this problem has been assisted by the NASA ASAP (Advanced Satellite Aviation Assets) program under J Murray. This work was partially supported by the National Science Foundation under contract ATM-0538319.

Supplementary material

445_2010_393_MOESM1_ESM.doc (54 kb)
Appendix Lightning at Volcanoes from Literature Search (DOC 53 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Geophysical InstituteUniversity of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA
  2. 2.Massachusetts Institute of Technology 48-211Parsons LaboratoryCambridgeUSA

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