Volcano tornado: Video of a vortex spawned by the Iceland eruption.

Because Why Not: A Volcano Tornado (Video)

Because Why Not: A Volcano Tornado (Video)

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 14 2014 8:00 AM

Volcanado

volcano vortex
Infrared view of a dust devil–like vortex spawned by a volcano.

Photo by Nicarnica, from the video

Hot on the heels of the incredible volcanic explosion video I posted recently comes another in the “holy cow these things really exist?!” department: a volcano tornado.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Yes, you read that right. OK, technically, it’s a vortex, more like a dust devil than a tornado. Still.

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Nicarnica Aviation is a company that has created infrared cameras that can detect volcanic ash in the air as a safety measure for pilots; ash is composed of microscopic particles of rock that are very jagged, and can clog airplane engines. Wanting to avoid that while you’re in the air should be obvious enough.

One of Nicarnica’s cameras was set up near the erupting Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland, and on Wednesday, Sept. 3, they caught the hephaestean twister:

That’s amazing. It’s also not entirely unprecedented! In February 2014 a series of twisters arose from pyroclastic flows blasting down the slopes of the volcano Sinabung in Indonesia, and they’re also somewhat common in big fires (like here and here). In April, a fire in Australia generated an amazing one that lasted for quite some time.

voclano_tornado_354

This is the first one I’ve seen over lava, though. I suspect the physics behind it is the same as the others, though. As I wrote before:

Now technically these aren’t tornadoes, even if they look like it. Tornadoes are when a funnel cloud is connected to the ground at its bottom and the base of a cumulonimbus cloud at its top. They form from the top down, dropping from the cloud base.
In this case, though, the phenomena are built from the ground up. The pyroclastic flow [Or in this current case, lava] heats the air over the ground, causing it to rise. Air from the sides then rushes in to fill the partial vacuum. This creates swirls, eddies of turbulence, which can get amplified into the vortices seen in the video (and also in fire tornadoes which are also seriously a thing). This makes these events more like a dust devil than proper tornadoes. Or, I suppose, an ash devil. But still, yeesh.
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In this case, the volcanado (yes, I’m calling it that, and yes, SyFy: Call me) is loaded with ash noxious gases like sulfur dioxide. Nasty.

fire tornado
A fire tornado was caught on video in Australia. Click to vortexenate.

Photo by Chris Tangey, from the video

But also amazing. I think this technology to spot the ash is important, too. Iceland is situated upwind from much of Europe, and as we learned in 2010 with Eyjafjallajokull, that can cause quite a mess with air travel.

For current info on the Bardarbunga volcano, I suggest the Iceland MET office website. There’s also live webcams set up (like here and here) with some pretty spectacular views.

Tip o’ the caldera to New Scientist.