Remarkable Images Of Volcanic Lightning, A Scientific Mystery

A German volcano enthusiast shot these images of lightning bolts blasting out of a Japanese volcano.

As someone who had recurring nightmares about volcanos her whole life, it’s unfathomable that some people seek the thrill willingly. But a whole industry has sprung up around the concept, with tourists–mainly, photographers–paying to be taken to the precipice of one of the thousand or so active volcanoes on Earth. They are the “gates to Earth and eternity,” in one enthusiast’s words.


Martin Rietze, a German photographer who works under the title “Alien Landscapes on Planet Earth,” has traveled to dozens of them. Rietze’s photo of the Sakurajima volcano was featured as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day earlier in the week, after Rietze traveled to southern Japan to photograph it in January. The volcano was part of the Osumi Peninsula until 1914, when it blew its lid and separated to form its own little island. Today, it’s one of the most active volcanos in Asia. “It leaves a very deep impression,” Rietze tells Co.Design. “Sitting near a boiling lava lake, feeling the heat and static charge of an ongoing eruption column 1000m high, smelling all kinds of toxic gasses, watching burning sulfur, hearing eruption sounds as loud as a starting airplane nearby …”

Rietze captured lightning erupting from the billowing smoke and ash–an unlikely phenomenon that NASA says is not yet fully understood. According to one Smithsonian article, there are actually two sorts: One occurs when charged gases meet cool air, similar to the way lightning occurs in thunderstorms. The other, which is what Rietze captured, was only recently discovered and is even less understood. It occurs continuously at the mouth of the volcano as it’s erupting, and seems to stem from the collision of highly charged lava and rocks: “There’s some mechanism in there that’s making it come out charged,” scientist Ronald Thomas told Eric Jaffe.

Rietze just returned from another volcano tour–this one to Mount Etna–but missed the eruption completely. “You have to accept that it often goes wrong,” he says. “But what counts are the results over the years.” Check out his website here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.