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Mount Etna’s stunningly violent eruption was among the strongest in decades

Mount Etna erupts on Thursday morning. (“Nico di Messina” <a href="">via Twitter</a> )
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Early Thursday morning, southern Italy woke up to see this remarkable display — Mount Etna, Sicily’s tallest peak and active volcano, was erupting after two years of silence.

The sky glowed red above Sicily, seen above from Calabria, Italy’s most southern region. The skies were cloudless on Thursday morning and Mount Etna was capped in white snow.

Scientists say it was among the most violent eruptions from the volcano in the past two decades. The intense eruption exploded from Etna’s Voragine crater, and lofted ash 10,000 feet into the sky. The whole thing lasted less than an hour, according to Italy’s national institute of volcanology. The lava fountain reached heights of close to a mile.

Italy's volcano Mount Etna leaps into action, shooting bright red lava into the of Sicilian night sky. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)

High level winds from the southwest pushed ash over villages in Sicily and southern Italy, which was seen clearly on infrared satellite images.

Numerous lightning bolts were also captured in the billowing ash cloud, which can sometimes happen in the most intense eruptions:

Lightning in volcanic eruptions is caused by the same reason it occurs in thunderstorms — negative and positive charges separate in the atmosphere, and lightning is what restores the charges to balance. But why the charge separation occurs in volcanic eruptions in the first place is still not well-understood. There seem to be a few theories, including one that suggests the ash ejected from the volcano already carries a certain charge, which then interacts with the charges in the atmosphere.
Volcanic lightning is difficult to capture — it usually only happens in the most intense eruptions, and is often confined to the very beginning of the eruption. While these are two of the hottest surfaces on Earth, lightning — at an astonishing 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit — is actually 25 times hotter than lava.