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Fulgurite morphology: a classification scheme and clues to formation

Abstract

Fulgurites are natural glasses formed by cloud-to-ground lightning. Several different morphologies of fulgurites have been reported in previous studies, including sand fulgurites, rock fulgurites, and clay fulgurites. Herein, we examine sand, clay, and caliche fulgurites and demonstrate that these differ systematically in their morphology. We further use morphological features to constrain properties of fulgurite-forming lightning strikes. We classify fulgurites into four types of morphologies with an additional minor type. Type I fulgurites are sand fulgurites consisting of thin, glass walls; type II fulgurites are clay fulgurites, consisting of thick, melt rich walls; type III fulgurites are caliche fulgurites, consisting of thick, glass poor walls; and type IV fulgurites are rock fulgurites, consisting of glasses with walls consisting of surrounding, unmelted rock. Fulgurite morphology shows that the energy of fulgurite-forming strikes is between 1 and 30 MJ/m of fulgurite formed, suggests heating rates in the order of 1,000 K/s, and lightning channel thicknesses of about 1 mm diameter. Lightning generates mixtures of at least two components in most fulgurites: an SiO2 glass identified as lechatelierite and a groundmass of more varied composition. In addition to these four primary types, a fifth type—droplet fulgurites—is morphologically dissimilar from the other types, but is compositionally related to the type II or IV fulgurites. Additionally, two fulgurites, both from York County, Pennsylvania, USA, showed the reduction of iron to iron metal with an assortment of Fe–Ti and Si–P compounds with stoichiometry that ranges from nearly pure Fe metal to FeSi. These metal silicides include stoichiometric Fe3Si, Fe2Si, and Fe5Si3, and possibly Fe8Si3 and Fe7Si3, and provide a terrestrial source for these phases, which are typically associated with extraterrestrial material.

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Notes

  1. Version 7, Outokompu Research Oy. The HSC chemical code stands for enthalpy, entropy, and heat capacity. More details on the code can be found at www.hsc-chemistry.net.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported in part by grants from NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary biology (grants NNX07AU08G and NNX10AT30G). The authors thank Dolores Hill for help with sample preparation, Zachary Atlas for help with microprobe and for reviewing the manuscript, Brent Owens for reviewing the manuscript, and Michael Joseph for assistance with microprobe of the Greensboro NC fulgurite. The manuscript benefitted significantly from comments from Chris Ballhaus, Tomas Martín-Crespo, and Kevin Jones.

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Correspondence to Matthew A. Pasek.

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Communicated by C. Ballhaus.

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Pasek, M.A., Block, K. & Pasek, V. Fulgurite morphology: a classification scheme and clues to formation. Contrib Mineral Petrol 164, 477–492 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00410-012-0753-5

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Keywords

  • Fulgurite
  • Lechatelierite
  • Contact metamorphism
  • Silicides