It was a long, stormy night, but it seems a lot calmer now that the sun’s come up. Things are so peaceful now, in fact, that you decide to take a stroll along the beach. Fresh sea air is just the thing to help you unwind from such a rough night. But as you traipse over the sand, you notice something utterly peculiar underneath your feet.
A really strange object is staring up at you from the sand and screaming for your attention. The bizarre item is not that big, but its erratic shape is enough to pique your interest. Similar to the root of a plant, the thing has a number of ends that all spiral off in different directions.
You then pick this object up from the shore, but you quickly realize that it isn’t organic. It feels much more solid than that – almost as if the thing was made of glass. Given that, then, you can quite confidently rule out the possibility that it’s come from a plant.
This object is undeniably different to anything you’ve ever encountered before. What is it, and why has it shown up now? But as you ponder questions such as these, a thought suddenly dawns on you. Is it possible that the strange object’s sudden appearance has something to do with last night’s storm?
Though you can’t confirm it yet, it turns out that you’re on the right track with this line of thinking. Objects such as this one can, in fact, show up on Earth in the aftermath of intense weather events. And more than that, it turns out that they’re far more common than you’d imagine.
These weird objects are often found underground – completely out of view from all of us here on the surface. If we were so inclined, though, we could probably dig them out of beaches that regularly experience stormy conditions. But what are these things, and what exactly is going on during storms that leads to their creation?
If you were to undertake a little research, you’d learn that these structures are known as “fulgurites.” As we’ve seen, they can come into being after a particularly nasty storm has taken place. But they’ve also been known to appear in the wake of other powerful events – including meteor strikes.
Fulgurites have been found in all corners of our planet: from the beaches of the U.S. West Coast all the way to the Sahara. A couple of centuries ago, meanwhile, a young scientist from England took note of the structures in his homeland. This person, as it happened, was Charles Darwin.
Darwin wrote that the fulgurites found in England had been huge – measuring up at around 30 foot long. The thing is, there’s a chance that this number was vastly overstated. In modern times, after all, the longest fulgurite ever to be uncovered was a little over half that length.
A 16-foot-long fulgurite was uncovered in Florida back in 1996. It was found by a team headed up by Martin A. Uman – a professor from the University of Florida. Though he was confident of finding a fulgurite on that occasion, the vast size of this one definitely caught him by surprise.
A couple of years after his discovery Uman spoke to the journal Weatherwise about how common fulgurites really are. He said, “The world is full of them. All you have to do is go to any beach and start digging.” But even so, specimens as large as 16 foot are extremely rare.
As a matter of fact, Uman’s fulgurite was noted by Guinness World Records for its size. That’s to say, no larger specimen has ever been discovered. We have to dismiss the 30-footer mentioned by Darwin, after all, because there’s no solid evidence that it ever actually existed.
Apparently, managing to excavate the specimen from Florida was a feat in itself. That’s because fulgurites are delicate structures, and you have to be really careful when you’re pulling them from the earth. Uman and his team were more than aware of this, so they brought in a paleontologist to help them out.
Though fulgurites can appear anywhere, it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that the biggest one came from Florida. After all, we’ve already noted that the structures tend to materialize in the wake of intense weather events. And the Sunshine State, of all places, is known for the frequency of its storms.
A huge number of thunderstorms are recorded each and every year all over Florida. Though the majority of them tend to hit the Everglades, Lakeland and all the areas in between the two. Generally speaking, this stretch of land will see anywhere from 100 to 130 storms every year, according to Weather Underground.
The Florida cities of Fort Myers and Tampa also experience plenty of thunderstorms each year. On average, the website notes that they are hit by 92 and 78 respectively. Some places have even be known to experience several different storms during the same day. Over in Cape Canaveral, for example, meteorologists once noted six individual storms throughout the same 24-hour period.
Given the extreme weather events that are so common to Florida, then, it’s no wonder that Uman and his team found the record-breaking fulgurite there. After all, the conditions of the state mean that it’s probably among the top places to dig these structures up. So if you fancied searching for them, Florida would be a good place to start.
Fulgurites are stunning objects, so for that reason alone they can be tantalizing discoveries. But they’re also fascinating from a scientific perspective, as we still have lots to learn about them. We know that humans have been aware of these objects for a long time now. Though the explanations for them were once a little more mystical.
The ancient Greeks worshipped the deity known as Zeus – a figure who they believed controlled the weather. In many depictions of the god, Zeus holds projectiles that he would toss down to Earth when he was angry. His missiles would then land in the midst of a storm.
Long after ancient Greek civilization had passed, the belief that objects fell from the sky during storms remained. Some people thought that the damage inflicted by a thunderstorm was actually caused by these things smashing into the ground. And it’s not too difficult to see why such a theory would have come to be accepted.
After certain storms, people would sometimes find strange objects planted in the Earth’s surface. These things, of course, would eventually come to be referred to as fulgurites. But given their otherworldly appearance, it’s not unreasonable that our forefathers once thought that they’d been hurled from the heavens.
There are certain characteristics common to all fulgurites, though they do come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Generally speaking, they are hollow in the middle, with tough, uneven outsides. But their measurements vary, and fulgurites can show up with colors ranging from green, tan, black and white.
A more archaic understanding of fulgurites implied that the structures were transported to Earth by bolts of lightning. As a matter of fact, the term “fulgurite” is itself evidence of this particular belief. The word has its roots in Latin – coming from the word fulgur. For reference, this translates to English as “lightning.”
But fulgurites, in reality, are actually created by bolts of lightning – rather than simply being transported by them. When a bolt hits the ground, a sort of imprint is created and left to rest there. And this is what creates fulgurites, which are also referred to as “petrified lightning.”
These petrified lightning specimens are created because of the extreme temperatures that surround bolts of lightning. According to Mental Floss, the air surrounding them heats up to more than 50,000 ⁰F, which is really difficult to fathom. To put it in perspective, the sun’s exterior hits temperatures of roughly five times less than that!
So, there are obviously consequences when lightning comes into contact with the surface of the Earth. If it hits a beach or a mountain, say, then there’s a good chance that a fulgurite will form. Basically, the heat of the lightning causes the particles in these surfaces to melt and reform really quickly as fulgurites. Sand fulgurites are more prevalent than rock ones, but the latter type aren’t impossible to find.
Rock fulgurites tend to be discovered at the apex of a mountain or near the top. They show up on the face of rocks – looking something like veins or arteries stretching out in different directions. And sometimes, the path of these branches follow the cracks that were already present in the rock.
The reason that rock fulgurites are mostly found at the top of mountains is pretty simple. Basically, mountains tend to soak up lightning bolts that are unleashed during thunderstorms. That’s why you’ll find rock fulgurites at the highest points of ranges all over the world – from the Alps in Europe to the Rocky Mountains of North America.
We now know that fulgurites are a direct consequence of lightning strikes. But do they materialize after every bolt hits the ground? Well, Martin Uman of the University of Florida doesn’t necessarily think so. And he’s in a better position than most to answer this question, as he’s among the world’s leading experts on lightning.
During the course of their studies on sand fulgurites, Uman and his contemporaries have noted the differences between individual specimens. He told Weatherwise in 1998, “We’ve seen fulgurites like soda straws. Others are one to two inches in diameter like heavy glass… like the current kept flowing and melting sand in a bigger and bigger area. Obviously, different current characteristics were involved in making fulgurites.”
Though Uman does have a warning for any amateurs hoping to uncover fulgurites. He said, “If a normal citizen tries to dig one of these out of the ground, they would destroy it because fulgurites are so fragile. It takes experts who are skilled at working with special tools and are used to digging up fossil bones. It’s definitely an art.”
So make sure to be very careful if you happen to find a fulgurite along the seashore some day. If you break it, you’ll probably have to wait for the next thunderstorm before getting another chance to collect one. Having said that, there are other ways in which the structures are created. They can also come about because of the temperatures induced by nuclear explosions or meteors crashing to Earth – but these aren’t too likely to occur, either.
Amazingly, though, there are also ways for people to deliberately create these amazing objects themselves. It should go without saying that a great deal of care is essential for anybody who tries these things out, but some individuals have been successful. And there’s one method in particular that’s really simple.
The first thing that needs to be done is fairly obvious. You’ll need to know if thunder and lightning is expected, so you should monitor the weather forecast. If it looks like a storm is on the way, then the more practical steps can get underway.
A really secluded part of a sandy beach will be needed for this project to work. It can’t be a place where people or animals are likely to be, otherwise they could end up getting hurt. Once this isolated spot has been found, a lightning rod or length of rebar is driven into the sand. It’s not certain that a bolt will hit this bar, but that’s just how it goes.
Naturally, you need to ensure that you’re out of the way before the storm arrives. After all, it’s a venture in which bolts of lightning are purposely being coaxed into a particular area. So, nobody should be near that rod during the storm – or for many hours after it’s passed.
If the rod was actually struck by lightning, then it’ll be really hot for a while afterwards. And the same goes for the sand surrounding it. So, anyone checking the area for fulgurites will need to take great care not to scald themselves. But if everything went well, then they should have a specimen of petrified lightning to show for their efforts.
There’s another method for purposely creating fulgurites that some people have made use of. According to Thought Co., you can use a transformer in order to create an artificial lightning bolt, which is then directed into silica material. This process can be effective, but the resulting fulgurite will likely be less impressive than naturally produced ones.
As Uman explained to Weatherwise, the manmade fulgurites would probably be much smaller than their natural counterparts. The professor said, “[The artificial specimens] would be no longer than 4 or 5 inches. You really need high voltage to make a long spark. Lightning makes a spark about 10 miles long.”
Uman initially started to look out for fulgurites simply because he was curious about them. And this isn’t surprising given his academic expertise on lightning. But as time went on and he came to learn more about them, his interest in the structures themselves deepened. As he reflected to Weatherwise, “They’re beautiful. They’ve become an obsession.”