The Big Picture: Redoubt

By Phil Plait | April 6, 2009 6:50 pm

The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture has taken on the eruption of the Alaskan volcano Mt. Redoubt, and pretty much every picture is incredible.

Mt. Redoubt from The Big Picture

That picture shows lightning erupting around the ash cloud; friction from the ash particles generates a huge static charge in the cloud, and the uplift (maybe, it’s not clear) provides charge separation. When the voltage gets high enough, bang! That picture is from the Alaska Volcano Observatory (money well spent, I should think most people would agree). There are lots more amazing shots at The Big Picture. Go see.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures

Comments (30)

  1. Aren’t pictures taken with “something called a camera”? I’m sure that someone would call that a waste, but surely not I! :)

  2. Vernon Balbert

    The last picture in the the set of pics proves that it’s Satan who causes volcanoes!


    Those electrical discharges are the result of friction between the particles of ash in the cloud! I’ve seen thing like that before!

  4. Well, I’d probably have a few discharges if I had friction on MY ash……


  5. Cairnos

    So awesome I almost wish I could see it myself. That’s ‘almost’ in the context of ‘I never ever ever plan on getting anywhere an actively erupting volcano/tsunami/any of the other amazing yet deadly sights this world throws together now and then’ :-)

  6. I gotta say – if I lived near that, I might be compelled to believe in Eternal Hellfire too.

  7. Reminds me of when Mt. St. Helens blew in 1980. When the ash cloud started descending on Yakima, it was pitch black at noon, with evil pink lightning going off all over because of the static. It was messy, but truly awesome.

    @ j/p=?

    That’s just… Oh, that’s… Oh…dear oh dear oh dear. :O

  8. I still find the beauty associated with destruction (from afar) awe inspiring.

  9. MadScientist

    Oooo. Redoubt’s erupted at least 19 times so far in this round; there are pretty amazing pictures from places where there’s so much sand in the air that it looks like night when it’s really day.

    I missed out on seeing the lightning in an eruption cloud though; on one field trip I stayed behind to check instruments instead of going on a flight to survey the volcano – and the volcano put on a great show that day. I’d been to the volcano twice in that week but never got to see an eruption with the lightning. :(

  10. Actually, while I think the $$ on the Alaska Volcano Observatory are incredibly well spent, the night lightning pictures are courtesy of Brentwood Higman of Ground Truth Trekking ( He has some fantastic time-lapse videos, too.

  11. Eigenvector

    It’s the Flying spaghetti monster manifesting himself for us! All hail the Electro-noodled Flying Spaghetti Monster!

  12. KC

    In the lower left corner I think I can see Frodo casting the Ring into a lake of fire…

  13. Ah, pics full of EARTH SHAKING AWESOME. Wait? What… Did I just hear another politician guffaw at the prospect of volcano research? Musta been my imagination…

  14. Blind Squirrel FCD

    Friction? I don’t think so. That would require dissimilar materials. More like a Lord Kelvin generator.

  15. Menyambal

    The Scanning Electron Microscope image of ash particles made me cry, almost. Ash from a volcano, that a few days ago was deep in the earth and impossible for any human to ever see, falls from the sky in Alaska, somebody puts it through a microscope, posts it on the internet, and everyone can see it, and marvel at the beauty of it.

    Science is frakking amazing.

    So are scientists.

  16. CR

    Menyambal, that was an eloquent way of putting things. Thank you.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Friction? I don’t think so. That would require dissimilar materials.

    Which we have, likely heterogenous rocks dissolved into the heated lava column, but also ice and water for Mt Redoubt.

    While the friction ionization hypothesis appears to me to be dominant on the web (and should be a null scenario vs standard lightning models), there are articles that may support other forms of charge separation as well. Apparently early lightning can be observed:

    “The radio receivers at multiple stations pick up the impulses, and the researchers can use them to pinpoint where the lightning occurred in a cloud based on when the impulses arrived at each station, similar to the way seismologists find the epicenter of an earthquake.

    “So we can get a picture, in 3-D, of what the lightning looks like inside the cloud,” Thomas said.

    Two phases

    The lightning in a volcanic eruption occurs because the ash and other debris blasting out of the volcano are highly charged.

    Though lightning was known to occur in the debris clouds above the volcano, the researchers found an earlier phase of volcanic lightning that had never before been observed and occurred right at the volcano’s mouth just as it began erupting. The details of the study are described in the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Science.

    Thomas described this phase as “big sparks maybe going just from the mouth of the volcano up into the column that’s shooting out of the volcano, and then some lightning that went upward from the top of the volcano up into the cloud that was forming.”

    As the debris cloud gathered over the volcano, lightning began to form in the cloud itself.

    “That lightning up in the big cloud is much like thunderstorm lightning, with lots of branches and lashing about for about half a second like it does in the thunderstorm,” Thomas told LiveScience. […]

    Thomas suspects that the occurrence of lightning could have to do with the strength of the eruption and the type of volcano. Stronger eruptions produced more highly charged debris and so may produce more lightning.

    “In other big eruptions, it seems to be pretty common,” Thomas said.

    Volcanoes like those in Hawaii, which for now produce only lava flows, he said, likely do not generate any lightning.”

    But the main claim seems to be that no one knows yet what is causing it.

  18. Naomi

    Thank you for posting these, Phil! They’re just… wow. I wish I was in Alaska right now! (Australia is… somewhat lacking on the volcanic front.)

    Cairnos, I would! But then, I want to be a volcanologist, so…

    Menyambal, me too. To see stuff in such beautifully minute detail that, until very very recently, was buried halfway across the world… just amazing.

  19. Joe Meils

    Yeah… Sarah has a volcano erupting in her back yard. But, she can’t be bothered with that! She has to put out statements about how Levi on Tyra is just a lyin’ little money and fame seeker!

    So glad she has her priorities straight.

  20. Cheyenne

    Just amazing photos. Brilliant. I love that they included the ones from the scanning electron microscope.

    I hope more sites like Big Picture are created. Wonderful!

  21. Gary Ansorge

    Great pics. Thanks for the links, Phil.

    GAry 7

  22. Al Seever

    I wonder if all this ash will cool things off in the northern hemisphere this spring and summer?

  23. DaveS

    The scanning electron micrograph of the ash particle reminds me of similar pictures of regolith. You know, the Fake Moon Rocks NASA developed as part of the ruse? (Nod to Phil)

    Anyway, one property of regolith is that it takes footprints very accurately, due to the un-weathered, pointy, prickly nature of the powder at a microscopic level.

    Does ashfall take perfect footprints like regolith?

  24. Joe Meils

    I respectfully submit, that when people in the future die during volcanic eruptions, ones that could have been warned agains, had there only been some monitoring of the volcano, that we lump them into a catagory we call “RJD’s” (Republican / Jindal Deaths)

  25. Rush Pinson

    i thank i have found a meteor it is as big as a foot ball how can i found out if it is

  26. Put a football next to the rock. If they are a similar size then the rock is indeed football sized.

    Otherwise contact your local museum or astronomy department at your local University.

  27. Blind Squirrel FCD

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM Jan 23 of this year? I couldn’t find it in the index. Hardly matters though because it is behind a subscription wall. I will just have to wait until it dribbles out in some fashion. Fascinating stuff.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Blind Squirrel, no IIRC it was referring to an article of 2007.

    [I don’t posts links anymore when we can as well google the text, since the comment will be hung up for moderation.]


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