A Volcanic Vortex Spirals Out of An Icelandic Eruption

We've seen dust devils and firenado, but are you ready for a volcanic vortex?

This swirling whirl of ash, volcanic gas, and flaming doom was imaged above the Holuhraun fissure eruption in Iceland earlier this month. The name is up for debate: I've seen both volcanado and volcano tornado in use, while a volcanic vortex would have the distinction of actually being a scientifically reasonable name. Despite our obsession with calling all things whirly some variety of tornado, it's not a tornado at all, but a dust devil that incorporated bits of its environment that make it far more flashy.

While tornadoes are powered by heat from above, for vortices like dust devils, fire whirls, and now these volcanic cousins, the heat comes from below. While I'm not finding any research specifically about the volcanic variant of these fascinating structures, it's pretty clear that lava is a strong heat source. If the wind conditions are just right, that heat can be enough to escalate any twirling air into a whirling mess of hot ash and volcanic gas.

The images were recorded using Nicarnica Aviation's NicAIR II instrument, an aviation infrared camera for ash detection.

Illustration for article titled A Volcanic Vortex Spirals Out of An Icelandic Eruption

Fissure eruption on August 31, 2014. Image credit: Benedict G. Ófeigsson

The bright red along the base is the fissure eruption and fire fountains, part of the ongoing volcanic unrest in Iceland. Hot gas rises as yellow or cooler white clouds. While no scale is noted in the video, after interviewing camera's inventor, New Scientist is reporting the vortex towers a kilometer tall.

The infrared camera was intented to help pilots identify ash concentrations in real time, a necessary component to safely follow regulation changes that took effect after Eyjafjallajökull made everyone miserable in 2010. That it can also identify volcanic vortices is downright fortunate. Considering the sulfur dioxide warnings for the region, it's very likely that along with being dangerously hot, the vortex is also thick with poisonous gas. Any way you spin it, no pilot wants to fly through that mess of impending doom.


Volcanic vortices at Mount Sinabung. Footage extracted from video by Photovolcanica.

This isn't the first time we've seen vortices associated with a volcano: they've been imaged before during a pyroclastic eruption at Mount Sinabung in Indonesia.


Tip via Phil Plait & New Scientist. Check out this paper for more about the difference between the trinity concentrated atmospheric vortices (hurricanes, tornadoes, and devils). For another visual treats, you see that a photographer captured both the eruption and aurora this weekend?


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Appropos of nothing, but an Icelandic commenter at Daily Kos has been doing a phenomenal job covering the eruptions and seismic activity on a daily basis. No political tilt; just straight science and some really helpful recaps / translations of Icelandic coverage.

See his latest here. I look forward to his updates and photographs every morning when I get to work.