Monday, August 13, 2012

The Electrodynamics of Volcanic Eruptions

Research in Progress

Josh Mendez
Graduate Student, Georgia Tech

Michoacán, México – 1953. Remigio Rita Morales and his friends stopped their afternoon game of marbles and looked up into the sky. The young P'urhépecha boys felt the ground shutter as jets of dark clouds engulfed the winter sky. Standing, the Remigio saw that the boiling gases and ash emanated from a large gash in a nearby corn field. Around the aperture, the surface moved up and down with every new explosion. The blasts echoed off the surrounding mountains—off Tacintaro, off Equijuata, off Tzirapan. On Feburary 20th, a few weeks after the P'urhépecha celebration of the New Fire (new year), a volcano was born. The new mountain was named Parhíkutini, the Place on the Other Side. 

The eruption was long; it lasted more than 9 years. Thick lava flows oozing out from two vents destroyed the town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, covering everything except for the steeples of an unfinished church. Only three people were killed in the eruption of Parhíkutini. However, it was not the sluggishly-flowing rivers of molten rock that claimed these lives (the lavas from Parhíkutini are so viscous once could easily outrun them). Death came from the skies; these unfortunate individuals were stuck down by powerful electric discharges resulting from accumulated charges in the volcano's eruptive column [1]. Volcano lightning.

USGS Photograph of volcanic lightning.

A number of other accounts regarding volcanic lightning can be found throughout human history.  Modern photography has allowed us to capture dazzling images of intricate electrical discharges enveloping clouds of hot ash and gas. However, other than of a purely observational nature, this phenomenon has received relatively little scientific attention.

Electric discharges, both natural and man-made, result when two regions accumulate huge amounts  opposite polarity charges. In a typical thunderstorm, for example, positive and negative charges exists at different heights within the thundercloud. These spatially separated charged regions forms an electric field within the cloud. The magnitude of the field, commonly expressed in volts per meter (V/m), is proportional to the charge density in each region. Now, we must remember that nature likes to minimize the energy of a system. As such, the electric field will try to bring opposite charges toward each other in order to neutralize them. Given that air is a relatively good insulator (meaning it does conduct electricity very well) electrical fields smaller than 100,000 V/m will have a difficult time  moving charge carriers around. However, larger pockets of charge will produce fields that will exceed the electrical breakdown value for air producing a massive, rapid flow of charge particles or a current. This is how you get a lightning strike [2].

The previous description of an electrical discharge holds true for volcanic lightning, however the mechanisms that produce the separation of charge within an eruptive column may be quite different from those within thunderclouds. Indeed, the physics behind the charging of ash particles is relatively unconstrained. While we by no means have a complete picture, we do have a number of clues that allow us to draw a rough sketch of the processes that cause eruptive columns become charged and eventually produce lightning.

For example, we know that when small particles, like ash or sand, collide and rub against each other they can acquire a net charge. This charging by rubbing is commonly known as the triboelectric effect. Indeed, in industrial settings where powders are moved around quite a bit, the triboelectric effect can be so powerful that it can produce sparks and explosions in the vicinity of combustible materials. As such, a number of researchers have devoted great effort to try to understand  what produces triboelectric charging at the microscopic scale and how negative effects can be mitigated [3] [4].

To test whether the triboelectric effect plays an important role in the charging of ash particles, Josh Méndez and Dan Arrington are conducting experiments using ash samples from three active volcanoes: Mount St. Helens (Washington, USA), Tungurahua (Tungurahua, Ecuador), Parhíkutini (Michoacán, México). By using  material from different volcanoes will explore how magma composition affects the magnitude of triboelectric charging. Mt. Saint Helens and Tungurahua have medium silica contents with subduction related input, typical of large stratovolcanoes. Parhíkutini, on the other hand, is a cinder cone volcano which produced magmas from a mantle source, with little subduction input and lower silica content [5].

To cause particles to collide we have developed an experimental apparatus similar to that used by Forward et al (2009) to explore triboelectric charging in other materials. The apparatus allows us to fluidize a certain quantity of and measure the resulting charge accumulated on the particles. Additionally, we are exploring how fast particles charge. At the time this blog entry was posted, experiments were currently underway and results were being prepared for   the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting.

So, why understand volcanic lighting? The answer is simple: lightning can be detected from great (and safe) distances. By understanding the relationship between ash movements, chemistry, and lighting we may be able to probe the interior dynamics of an erupting volcano in a risk-fashion. Such a tool would indubitably be beneficial for hazard assessment, ash dispersal forecasts, in addition to gaining a better understanding of the global atmospheric electrical circuit.


[1] Paricutin, Mexico. Oregon State University.

[2] Rakov, V. and M. A. Uman (2007) Lightning: Physics and Effects. Cambridge University Press (January 8, 2007)

[3] Forward, K., D. Lacks, and R. M. Sankaran
 (2009). Triboelectric Charging of Granular Insulator Mixtures Due Solely to
 Particle-Particle Interactions
. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2009, 48, 2309–2314

[4] Forward, K., D. Lacks, and R. M. Sankaran
 (2009). Methodology for studying particle–particle triboelectrification
 in granular materials. Journal of Electrostatics 67 (2009) 178–183

[5]  Verma, S. and T. Hasenaka (2003). Sr, Nd, and Pb isotopic and trace element geochemical constraints for a veined-mantle source of magmas in the Michoacán-Guanaj
uato Volcanic Field. Geochemical Journal, Vol. 38, pp. 43 to 65, 2004

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