CNN

Lightning in the ‘cataclysmic’ Tonga volcano eruption shattered ‘all records’

Jan 9, 2023, 6:00 AM

One-minute snapshots of lightning over the Tonga volcano eruption on January 15. The lightning surr...

One-minute snapshots of lightning over the Tonga volcano eruption on January 15. The lightning surrounded the volcano "in distinctive ring patterns during the peak of the eruption," Vaisala reports. (Vaisala via CNN)

(Vaisala via CNN)

Originally Published: 08 JAN 23 03:07 ET
Updated: 08 JAN 23 22:44 ET

    (CNN) — When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January 2022, it sent shockwaves around the world. Not only did it trigger widespread tsunami waves, but it also belched an enormous amount of climate-warming water vapor into the Earth’s stratosphere.

Related: First aid flights arrive in Tonga after big volcano eruption

Now researchers in a new report have unveiled something else: the eruption set off more than 25,500 lightning events in just five minutes. Over the course of just six hours, the volcano triggered nearly 400,000 lightning events. Half of all the lightning in the world was concentrated around this volcano at the eruption’s peak.

The “cataclysmic eruption” shattered “all records,” according to the report from Vaisala, an environmental monitoring company that tracks lightning around the world.

“It’s the most extreme concentration of lightning that we’ve ever detected,” Chris Vagasky, meteorologist and lightning expert at Vaisala, told CNN. “We’ve been detecting lightning for 40 years now, and this is really an extreme event.”

The annual report by Vaisala found that 2022 was a year of extremes for lightning. Lightning increased in the US in 2022, with more than 198 million lightning strokes — 4 million more than what was observed in 2021, and 28 million more than 2020.

“We are continuing an upward trend in lightning,” Vagasky said.

The World-Wide Lightning Location Network, another lightning monitoring network led by the University of Washington, which is not involved with the report, said Vaisala’s findings about global lightning as well as the Hunga volcano are consistent with their own observations.

“We can do this because the stronger eruptions generate lightning, and lightning sends detectable radio signals around the world,” Robert Holzworth, the director of the network, told CNN. “The Hunga eruption was absolutely impressive in its lightning activity.”

Researchers have used lightning as a key indicator of the climate crisis, since the phenomenon typically signals warming temperatures. Lightning occurs in energetic storms associated with an unstable atmosphere, requiring relatively warm and moist air, which is why they primarily occur in tropical latitudes and elsewhere during the summer months.

But in 2022, Vaisala’s National Lightning Detection Network found more than 1,100 lightning strokes in Buffalo, New York, during a devastating lake-effect snowstorm that dumped more than 30 inches of snow in the city, but piled historic totals in excess of 6 feet in the surrounding suburbs along Lake Erie. Lake-effect snow occurs when cold air blows over warm lake water, in this case from the Great Lakes. The large difference in temperature can cause extreme instability in the atmosphere and lead to thunderstorm-like lightning even in a snow storm.

Related: Watch out for lava glass near erupting volcano, says U. of U. geologist

The report noted that many of these lightning events happened near wind turbines south of Buffalo, which Vagasky said was significant. He explained that the ice crystal-filled clouds were lower to the ground than usual, scraping just above the blades of the turbines.

“That can cause what is known as self-initiated upward lightning,” Vagasky said. “So the lightning occurs because you have charged at the tip of this wind turbine blade that is really close to the base of the cloud, and it’s really easy to get a connection of the electric charge.”

This is an area of ongoing research, he said, as the country turns to more clean energy alternatives.

“We’re seeing bigger and bigger wind turbines, and certainly as we’re putting in more and more wind energy and renewable energy, lightning is going to play a role in that,” he said.

The report comes after an unusual year in 2021, when they found lightning strokes increased significantly in the typically frozen Arctic region, which scientists say is a clear sign of how the climate crisis is altering global weather.

“Lightning in polar regions wasn’t mentioned [in this year’s Vaisala report], but our global lightning network shows a trend for much more lightning in the northern polar regions,” Michael McCarthy, research associate professor and associate director of the World Wide Lightning Location Network, told CNN. “That trend closely tracks the observed average temperature changes over the northern hemisphere.

“This close tracking suggests, but does not prove, a climate change effect,” McCarthy added.

Vagasky said lightning in colder areas will only amplify as the planet warms, noting that meteorologists and climatologists have been collecting more data to not only make the climate connections clear but also keep people safe.

“That’s why they’ve named lightning as an essential climate variable,” he said, “because it’s important to know where it’s occurring, how much is occurring, and so you can see how thunderstorms are trending as a result of changing climates.”

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

CNN

Afghan relatives offer prayers during a burial ceremony near the graves of victims who lost their l...

Niamh Kennedy and Radina Gigova, CNN

At least 300 people killed by flash floods in Afghanistan

At least 300 people have died in flash flooding that has ravaged northern Afghanistan in recent days, the Word Food Programme said Sunday.

16 days ago

The Apple Store at Towson Town Center Mall in Maryland is pictured. Apple Store workers in Towson, ...

Jordan Valinsky, CNN

Apple Store workers in Maryland vote to authorize strike

Apple Store workers in Towson, Maryland made history by voting late May 11 in favor of authorizing a strike.

16 days ago

Smoke from wildfires blankets the city as a couple has a picnic in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, May...

Paradise Afshar and Sara Smart, CNN

Canadians evacuate due to wildfires as air quality deteriorates

Thousands across Canada were urged to evacuate from blazing wildfires on Saturday, and the smoke emanating from them could be another danger.

16 days ago

Salvage crew members work on the deck of the cargo ship Dali on Friday, May 10....

Nicole Grether and Gloria Pazmino, CNN

Crews could use explosives to demolish part of Baltimore’s Key Bridge

Crews are expected to execute a plan to use small explosives to break apart a massive chunk of the Baltimore bridge that collapsed.

16 days ago

The sun is rising with a flare over Korla, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, on May 10....

Brian Fung, CNN

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems

An unusual amount of solar activity due to a solar storm this week could disrupt some of the most important technologies society relies on.

18 days ago

A customer wipes sweat from their face as they work out on a treadmill inside a Planet Fitness Inc....

Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Planet Fitness will raise its $10 membership plan for the first time in 26 years

Planet Fitness will raise the price of its “classic” membership from $10 a month to $15 for new members beginning in the summer.

19 days ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

Lightning in the ‘cataclysmic’ Tonga volcano eruption shattered ‘all records’