What happens when lightning hits sand ? All it takes is a flash. Lightning strikes the ground, creating temperatures of more than 3,000 degrees. The sand around the lightning strike fuses together, and fulgurite is formed. Not every lightning strike creates a fulgurite; scientists suspect that the harder packed the earth is, the more likely it will form.
What Are Fulgurites?
The word—based on the Latin world for thunderbolt—refers to a hollow glass tube formed when lightning strikes soil, silica, sand or even rock. These amazing structures, sometimes referred to as “petrified lightning” or “lightning stones”, don’t look like the transparent glass in your windows or kitchen cabinets.
Instead they are complex structures that resemble a cross between a vegetable root and some of the more crystalline minerals such as mica. They vary in shape and size—most are only a few inches long—and they tend to form around the path of the dispersing electric charge of the lightning.
In 1996, University of Florida professor Martin A. Uman’s research team in Florida excavated the biggest fulgurite on record—a tremendous bolt that forked into three parts, one measuring more than 16 feet, another 14 feet, and the final one 8 feet.1
To be clear, in the photo below the fulgurite would have been excavated in order to appear in this way. As Science Alert points out, photos of fulgurites “already dug up or with their surroundings eroded away make it look as though these structures are formed above the ground—which is not true.”
According to the Utah Geological Survey, there are two types of fulgurites: those formed when lightning hits sand and those created from rock. Sand fulgurites come from beaches and deserts, have a more glass-like interior, and can be particularly fragile. Rock fulgurites, which are rarer, form as veins inside rocks and often need to be chiseled out of their surroundings.
Fulgurites have been found all over the world, although they are relatively rare. Prof. Uman said in a paper, “The world is full of them. All you have to do is go to any beach and start digging.”1 Their unusual structure, delicate nature and origin give them some value, although not in the range of precious metals. Some sites list small fulgurites for as little as $30. The more attractive pieces or those processed into jewelry can fetch a few hundred dollars.
Although most collectors seek out fulgurite solely for its looks, some people believe the lightning stones hold magical abilities to help focus divine energy, enhance creativity, or heal various illnesses. The TV show “Supernatural” used fulgurites in a few episodes to summon gods or demons, although those uses don’t appear to be part of any traditional lore.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some people enjoy making their own fulgurites, either by sticking lightning rods in sand before thunder storms or using a high-voltage power supply in a lab. The resulting fulgurites can be even more attractive than those created naturally, although obviously safety is paramount when engaging in these activities.
What Happens When Lightning Strikes Sand?
Does your family take a summer vacation each year? Many families like to pack up the family vehicle for a cross-country road trip to visit several national parks. Others might opt for a “staycation” close to home.
For many families, though, a summer vacation means a trip to the beach. There’s nothing like hours and hours of floating in the ocean waves and soaking up the Sun’s rays to relax the body, mind, and soul.
Beach vacations are a lot of fun as long as the weather is cooperating. It can be frustrating when storms come and force you to stay inside when you just want to feel the sand under your toes.
Storms that blow in from the ocean can be fierce at times. The sounds of thunder and the awesome lightning displays should only be experienced from a distance, as it can be very dangerous to be near a large body of water during a lightning storm.
A bolt of lightning packs awesome power and can even be hotter than the surface of the Sun. When it strikes sand, it can actually create interesting works of art if the conditions are just right.
For example, if lightning strikes sand that’s rich in silica or quartz and heats it to a temperature above 3,272˚ F, it will melt the sand into silica glass below the surface. This creates hollow, glass-lined tubes that are rough and sandy on the outside.
Scientists call these creations fulgurites. The word comes from the Latin word for “thunderbolt.” They’re also sometimes known as petrified lightning.
Fulgurites can be found all over the world, but they’re not very common. Since they’re created underground, you either have to dig for them or stumble across one that happens to have been unearthed by erosion.
Unfortunately, fulgurites are brittle and delicate, so they’re easily broken if you dig for them. They’re usually one to two inches in diameter and only a few inches long, although some fulgurites can reach two feet or more in length.
If you look for fulgurites, don’t expect to find something resembling a transparent tube. They often resemble sticks, since the outside usually looks like tree bark because it’s made of partially-melted sand. If you pay attention on your next vacation, though, you just might be lucky enough to find a piece of petrified lightning
What Really Happens When Lightning Strikes Sand
Before science, the flash of lighting that followed a crack of thunder was the will of Greek gods or a violent outcropping of animism. Now we know a bit more about lightning. We know that it can be hotter than the surface of our Sun; we know that it can absolutely strike in the same place twice; and we know that when it hits sand, it can create wonderful art. And we know people can mistake that art for a stick in the sand.
You may have seen the photo above making its rounds on the Internet. Spotted in multiple places on Reddit, the image was simply titled “What happens when lightning strikes sand.”
My B.S. detector went off. It looked too amazing to be true. It was impossibly stable and the spires on top looked curiously like the wet sand I used to make odd sand castles as a boy. So what is this thing
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