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Six freaky and terrifying kinds of severe weather

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, February 24, 2014, 6:27 AM -

From earthquakes, to wildfires, to hurricanes, and everything in between, we accept that the natural world can be hostile. 

But sometimes, Mother Nature grants a rare, and terrifying, new form to a common disaster.

Take, for instance, Mt. Sinabung in Indonesia, which erupted so strongly earlier in February that it actually spawned dark tornadoes.

It was easily explainable as a sort of dust devil, but scientific explanations don't at all take away from how striking, and a little scary, those meteorological curve balls can be.

Here are six freaky, and frightening, examples of severe weather or natural disasters that look like they were put together on a sci-fi blockbuster budget.

Volcanic Lightning

Contrary to what you might imagine, the incandescent shot below is not part of a Swedish Viking metal album, although we would forgive you if that was your original assumption.

Image: Oliver Spalt [www.artweise.de/] / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Oliver Spalt [www.artweise.de/] / Wikimedia Commons

It was shot by photographer Oliver Spalt in 1995, at a safe distance from Indonesia’s Mt. Rinjani, one of the archipelago nation’s many, many volcanoes. 

Volcanic eruptions are catastrophic and awe-inspiring enough, so the addition of a few bolts of lightning kind of seems like overkill, but they do happen, although the process that creates them is not 100 per cent understood.

They could be a by-product of what meteorologists call 'dirty thunderstorms.' The lightning is produced by a similar process as in a regular thunderstorm, where friction between particles creates a static charge. Only instead of high-altitude ice particles, it’s ash and rock particles that create the charge.

Although volcanic eruptions have been observed by mankind for millennia (often via panicked backward glances), scientific study of them has only really been around for a couple of centuries.

It seems the lightning phenomenon is one of the last aspects of volcanoes to be studied in great detail, with definitive research into “dirty thunderstorms” being released only in 2007.

And even then, the researchers said there was still a lot more research needed to figure out exactly how what sparks these incredible bolts.

Fire tornados

We’ve already talked about the phenomenon of volcanic tornadoes – dust devils of smoke and ash. Now meet their blazing counterparts, Fire whirls:

This awesome shot was captured by Australian film maker Chris Tangey in 2012, while scouting filming locations in that country’s Northern Territory. He said it sounded like the roar of a fighter jet as it scoured the parched landscape, and it was one of several.

Fire whirls can occur due to a combination of wind sheer and intense heat, sucking flames upward into a towering flame vortex.

Rural firefighters tasked with battling wildfires dread them – although they typically don’t last long, they can spread hot debris beyond the immediate area. They’re not really all that rare, just not often photographed, at least not until recent years (See below for one from the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo).

Despite their appearance, they’re not considered true tornadoes, rather being more like dust devils … except for one, terrifying exception in Australia.

After painstakingly collecting the evidence, researchers announced in 2012 that they’d discovered the first evidence of an actual fire tornado – emitted from a thunderstorm, itself generated from the intense smoke of the 2003 wildfires in Canberra, the Australian capital

And like a true tornado, its effects were devastating. Tall trees were snapped in half, roofs were ripped off of houses, and vehicles were picked up and tossed by the burning twister’s estimated horizontal winds of around 250 km/h

Australia, like Canada and the United States, is one of the most wildfire-prone nations in the world. It isn't comforting to know that aside from the risk of death and damage to property, the fires can spawn a pillar of flame powerful enough to rip your home apart.

Heat bursts

Heat bursts are unseen blasts of hot air that can turn a tranquil, temperate evening into a sweltering windstorm.

They don’t happen often, but when they do, they can cause the temperature to spike by several degrees in a very short period of time. One documented event in South Africa was marked by temperatures skyrocketing from around 20°C to more than 40°C in just five minutes.

Other documented changes are less drastic, but still noticeable. Here’s an example from Kansas:

The history books are filled with extreme, but poorly documented cases. An unconfirmed (and unlikely) reported heat burst in Iran supposedly drove temperatures up to 87°C, resulting in deaths and liquefied asphalt. Other examples, again, from places with no official weather stations, caused car radiators to boil over and crops to be flash-dried in the fields.

It’s not aliens, and although rare, they are relatively easy to explain. The phenomenon, similar to a downburst, begins when a thunderstorm weakens over a layer of dry air and, though a complicated series of meteorological processes, the falling air gets hotter and drier as momentum carries it down to the earth.

Once it hits the ground, the air is dispersed in all directions, producing winds in excess of 120 km/h in some cases – more than enough to damage homes.

Here’s a video explanation:

Most cases seem to happen at night, don’t last long, and are more common in the thunderstorm season of the spring and summer months. Which is a shame, because given how ridiculously cold this winter has been in many parts of Canada, we wouldn’t mind a moderate heat burst here and there.

At the very least it would get rid of these mountains of snow.

NEXT PAGE: Rogue waves reach 10 storeys tall

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