Thousands of years ago, before the onset of science, people believed a flash of lightning was the anger of the Greek gods. The spectacular flash invoked both terror and awe into ancient civilisations, especially when accompanied by the deep rumble of thunder.
Today of course, we know a lot more about lightning, such as the fact its temperature can be hotter than the sun’s surface or that it’s just a myth that lightning won’t strike the same place twice. We also know that when lightning strikes sand, it can create a spectacular work of art.
However, the conditions must be perfect for it to create an amazing structure: when the lightning strikes a sandy beach that has high quantities of silica or quartz, at a temperature higher than 1800°C, the sand can fuse into a phenomenon known as silica glass. A blast of one billion Joules can create glass-lined, fulgurite–hollow tubes with sand outside, known as petrified lightning, leaving an amazing work of art in its wake.
This occurs because the lightning branches through the sand, rather like the roots of a tree, to make a beautifully natural anomaly. Fulgurite is made below the ground and can eventually protrude above it through erosion. So, a piece of petrified lightning may have lain beneath the ground for many years but over time, the sand above will shift to reveal the tubes.
They are so perfectly formed that they have stood the test of time, withstanding the natural elements. When petrified lightning is exposed by erosion, it’s usually in a relatively calm area – they can become fragile once exposed above ground. You wouldn’t expect to find a specimen on a busy beach where there’s heavy foot traffic and a tide.
It’s a rare phenomenon, so if any examples of petrified lightning are found, they are quickly pounced upon by geologists. They create an unusual insight into the raw power of nature and lightning. The structures also have scientific value – recently, scientists analysed the gas trapped in fulgurite bubbles to get an idea of the flora that existed in ancient deserts.
Excavation work has taken place on specimens found across the world but they can be fragile in these circumstances and require painstaking work to retrieve the structure without causing damage.
The phenomenon was depicted in the 2002 Reese Witherspoon film, Sweet Home Alabama and also in a viral photo from 2013 that went wild on the Internet. The movie version lacked scientific accuracy, portraying the glass sculptures as root-like, rather than the rocky tubes they form in reality.
The viral photo said to be of lightning striking sand was later denounced as a fake by Scientific American. It was said to be a piece of driftwood or some other solid structure, with wet sand dripped on it that had dried to form a fascinating shape – created by an artist who called himself Sandcastle Matt.
However, both examples show the fascination that people have with this natural phenomenon, which is one of Mother Nature’s most stunning creations.
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