Mount Etna’s Violent, ‘Dirty Thunderstorm’ Eruption Is Beautiful And Terrifying

If you need a reminder of Mother Nature’s power and humanity’s insignificance in comparison, then take a gander at Mount Etna’s epic eruption Thursday night; a brief and extremely violent paroxysm that produced a rare and spectacular dirty thunderstorm.

This is the first time Mount Etna has blown in two years, although she’s been restless and threatening to explode all year, Science Alert reported. Located on the island of Sicily, the volcano is one of the Earth’s most active and has been spewing lava into the air for 2.5 million years.

Despite her age, the volcano still packs a punch, and Thursday’s eruption was the most violent Mount Etna has produced in 20 years.

The explosion lasted a mere 50 minutes, Wired reported. During that brief, violent spasm, Mount Etna spewed a column of black ash and a lava fountain half a mile into the air, with some jets reaching a height of almost two miles. By Friday morning, Mount Etna’s spectacular performance the night before had been reduced to a wispy cloud, although the smoke, ash, and sulphur dioxide that resulted could be seen from space, Slate added.

The eruption affected villages, towns, and cities both near and far. According to The Local, the cinders fell on the city of Catania, which sprawls just beneath the peak. But the wind blew it another 60 miles northeast and over the Straight of Messina to mainland Italy, where the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria were covered in a “fine dusting of ash” by morning.

At least one local airport, which sends flights to Rome and Milan, was closed. The towns nearby are well protected from Mount Etna’s wrath with a series of ditches and concrete dams that divert lava flows.

The locals have learned their lesson over the centuries. Mount Etna has been exploding about as long as people have been keeping records, meaning it has the longest recorded history of eruptions of any volcano in the world. The ancient Romans even dealt with her intermittent spasms during the height of the Empire. The written record tells of one eruption in 122 B.C. that was so immense the resulting ash blocked the sun for several days and caused extensive damage that took the Romans 10 years to rebuild.

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Mount Etna is Europe’s biggest volcano, standing 10,900 feet high. It has five craters, Bocca Nuova on the northeast, two in the south east, and the Voragine, which formed inside the peak’s central crater in 1945, The Guardian added.

The blast originated from the Voragine crater, and low-level activity has been reported in that specific area for weeks. Since the beginning of the year, it has sputtered a bit of lava here and there, culminating in Thursday’s eruption. Mount Etna’s activity is caused by a clash of the African and the Eurasian tectonic plates.

Thursday’s eruption was spectacular not just for its violence, but also because it produced something rarely seen but documented in other recent eruptions; the dirty thunderstorm. Both Chile’s Cabulco volcano, which erupted for the first time in 43 years earlier this year, and Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption back in 2010, produced the same weather phenomenon.

The dirty thunderstorm is so remarkable because it creates a lighting storm inside the volcanic plume, which is what an amateur video captured at Mount Etna. Scientists believe this lightning is caused by a buildup of an electric charge caused by ash particles rubbing together inside the ash cloud.

But theoretically, Mount Etna’s paroxysm may also have produced another highly unusual phenomenon — spherical glass balls — which may be caused by the ash cloud lightning storm. The balls are formed when lightning heats the air inside the ash cloud to 54,000 degrees within a millionth of a second, which melts glass particles into a hot liquid. As the drops soar through the air and cool, they form the balls.

[Photo Via YouTube]