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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Close-Up on a Spectacular Volcanic Eruption

By Phil Plait

Back in March, I posted some intensely cool pictures and video of the erupting Volcán de Colima, also known as Tonaltepetl. They were taken by César Cantú, an amazing astrophotographer.

He recently posted more pictures of the March 30 eruption, and seriously, what can I say but Holy Haleakala!*

That picture above shows the early seconds of an eruption, as Cantú points out the very moment when magma turns into lava. The eruption blasted molten rock and ash into the sky, and in this six-second exposure you can see blobs of lava (called bombs) falling down to Earth. The longer exposure gives this photo a feeling like it was painted, a sense you get much better in the full-res version.

Also back in March I posted a jaw-dropping time-lapse animation of the eruption Cantú made. It’s worth pointing out that he made a second one zooming in on the top of the peak where all the action is, and you can really see the plume, the lava … and huge streaks of lightning zapping through the maelstrom!

Ye. GADS. You can see why the Weather Channel chose this video to highlight, too.  

Lightning occurs in violent eruptions like this as glassy ash particles rub against each other, generating huge static charges. While this is a relatively common event, the hows and whys of the details aren’t completely understood. We used Cantú’s footage to make a Bad Astronomy video about this, in fact:


I just spent quite a bit of time on Mauna Kea and Kilauea for Science Getaways and could not get enough. Volcanoes are endlessly fascinating, and I can see why so many geologists are driven by them, why volcanoes become their life passion. Cantú’s photos show that very well.

*Sometimes that exclamation is more apropos than others.

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