Just hours after Pope Benedict XVI quit, a lightning bolt struck St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Yeah, yeah, lightning probably strikes the church on days when the pope hasn't resigned too. But it's more fun to ignore that as you appreciate this. (The Guardian)
Here's a story that combines two favorite bits of volcano news into one interesting discovery. You know those great, freaky photos of volcanic lightning? (In case you don't, I've got one posted above.) Remember how the Icelandic volcanic eruptions totally screwed up everybody's airplane travel plans?
Apparently, studying volcanic lightning could lead to better eruption detection systems that could make it easier to predict how big a plume of ash off that volcano will be—knowledge that can help airlines and travelers be better prepared. At Nature, Richard Monastersky reports:
The researchers found that the amount of lightning correlated with the height of the plume, something they could not test using more limited data collected during an eruption at Alaska’s Mount St Augustine in 2006. This observation is important, says Behnke, because systems to monitor lightning could provide an estimate for the size of an eruption, which is not always easy to assess for remote volcanoes.
During a previous eruption at Mount Redoubt in 1989 and 1990, for example, the size of the plume wasn’t known and a plane nearly crashed after passing through the ash cloud and temporarily losing all power from its engines. Behnke and her colleagues suggest that VHF stations similar to the ones they installed at Mount Redoubt could be used to monitor volcanoes to give early warning of an eruption and an estimate of its size.
Lightning can break down air up to five times more easily than normal electric arcs [between two oppositely charged rods in the lab], using tricks we don't yet understand. However, recent theories and a few tantalising experimental results suggest that normal arcs start to gain lightning-like abilities once they grow past about 60 metres in length. If we can build a machine this large, we'll very quickly arrive at a better understanding of what's going on.