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10 Strangest Natural Electrical Phenomena

We've contained electricity. Constrained it. Placed it behind walls and in wires, funneled it into vast networks arcing high above our heads and buried deep underground. But it still has a few secrets left — here are 10 of the strangest natural electrical phenomena ever recorded.

Volcano Lightning

Also called “dirty thunderstorms”, these lightning strikes occur in the wake of massive volcanic eruptions. There's no consensus on the cause, but many experts believe that plumes of ash create enough static electricity to generate the storms.

Volcano Lightning
Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Ball Lightning

Another type of lightning still not fully understood — and not even officially recognized until the late 1960s. Those who have seen ball lightning often describe it as hovering just a few feet above ground, crackling, fizzing and occasionally exploding. Some claim it moves into buildings and floats down hallways, avoiding people and other objects. Scientists in China speculate the balls may be the result of vaporized silicon oxide; after a ground lightning strike, the released vapor reacts with oxygen to produce a glowing orb.


The Everlasting Storm

At the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, a lightning storm rages almost 300 nights per year. Each night tens of thousands of bolts rain down, possibly caused by rising methane swamp gas meeting billowing Andes' winds — no matter the source, the end result is beautiful and terrifying.

The Everlasting Storm
Photo by www.cont.ws

St. Elmo's Fire

First observed by sailors, St. Elmo's Fire is an other-worldly blue or violet flame that appears around ships and heralds the end of powerful storms. The explanation? A difference in voltage between the sea and surrounding atmosphere which causes the ionization of gas, especially at high points such as the top of masts. This effect also occurs at the top of church steeples and around airplane wings. Photo by Tom

St. Elmo's Fire
Photo by wikipedia.org

Whistlers

Also called the “electromagnetic dawn chorus,” Whistlers are high-pitched sounds created in the upper atmosphere during lightning storms. They're said to sound like birdsong by the “hunters” who chase them down.


Sprites

Sprites are a kind of plasma discharge which result in massive, bright-red flashes up to 50 kilometers across. Due to their high altitude sprites are largely harmless but planes or monitoring equipment caught in their wake could suffer electrical failure.

Sprites
Photo by Jason Ahrns

Wire Corona

Occurring on powerlines, these bright lights may be caused by static buildup on nearby towers and lines, and may provide an explanation for the number of “UFO” sightings in these areas. Photo by wikipedia

Wire Corona
Photo by wikipedia.org

The Platypus

Not all mysterious electrical phenomenon are storm-related; the animal kingdom is full of uniquely charged animals. The platypus, for example, tracks prey using the 40,000 electric sensors on its beak.

The Platypus
Photo by Trevira

Electric Rays

Certain rays, meanwhile, can generate their own electric fields, with some able to produce 220 volts when threatened.

Electric Rays
Photo by Chuck Sumner


Oriental Hornets

Active during the hottest part of the day, these hornets are solar powered: Their brown stripes catch sunlight, while yellow stripes convert and store energy.

Oriental Hornets
Photo by Rachid H

Despite its familiarity and ease-of-use, there's still much about electricity we simply don't know. Fortunately, there are a host of natural phenomenon to help us better understand — and improve.

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