Mythology Meets Geology: Fulgurites

With the clap of his mighty hands and the swing of his brawny arm, Zeus sent ear-shattering thunder and blinding bolts of lightning through the air and down to Earth. Zeus’s intentions were not to punish the people of Earth, but to remind them who possesses all power both in heaven and Earth as the ruler of the gods himself. The people of Earth marveled and feared his great power in return. But once the storm was over, the people of Earth would go out into the desert to search for the remnants of Zeus’s power. They would search for fulgurites. Zeus would hurl lightning bolts into sandy deserts and leave behind these glassy, hollow artifacts for the people to find as a constant reminder of his omnipotence. The people finding these celestial objects would safeguard them, believing they could grant them miraculous powers and incredible fortune. Acquiring one of Zeus’s fulgurites meant gaining favor in the eyes of the almighty Zeus. After storms, it was a race to the desert to seek out these life-changing relics.

fulgurite_NPSPatrickMyers
Picture of a fulgurite taken by Patrick Myers for the National Parks Services.

The word fulgurite comes from the Latin “fulgur” which literally means ‘thunderbolt.’ Though I fabricated the story above, there are interesting correlations between these remnants of thunderbolts and our cultural world. Before glass making was invented, ancient peoples would find these mysterious glass pieces and use them to adorn the jewelry of royalty. Since they did use the glass for royalty, and they did name it “thunderbolt,” perhaps they did tie the glassy structures to deity. In modern times, fulgurites are worn by some with the belief that they hold healing powers, both physically and mentally. Let’s not forget about the references to fulgurites in the popular TV series “Supernatural” where they use the lightning stones to summon gods and demons.

desert
Photo by Boris Ulzibat on Pexels.com

Fulgurites can actually be compared directly to the synthetic material known as glass. Both fulgurites and glass need quartz from sand and extreme heat to form. Fulgurites get the heat directly from lightning bolts striking the quartz filled sand in any desert. Quartz, which is made of the elements Silicon and Oxygen, fills any desert or beach and is known to us as tiny grains of sand. Sand is mostly made of minerals formed deep under the earth that have been worn down to fine grains due to weathering processes. Temperatures of up to 1200 degrees Celsius is needed for this quartz to melt and turn to glass, that is about 500 degrees hotter than your average campfire. When lightning strikes sand, it hits the sand with initial temperatures of up to 10,000 degrees Celcius vaporizing any sand that comes in direct contact with the bolt. As the temperatures decrease around the lightning bolt, it is still hot enough to form a glass tube around the outside of the bolt. As the temperature cools even further outside the newly formed glass tube, you get a rough mixture of partially melted sand on the outside. So why does our glass appear so much more pristine? Consistent heating methods along with pure samples of quartz create the useful, transparent material known as glass. Fulgurites on the other hand receive short bursts of high temperatures along with a crude mixture of quartz along with other rocky bits.

building clouds facade glass panels
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Whether you use fulgurites as other-worldly healing vesicles, or believe they are reminders of the extreme power of deity, or simply think it is cool to hold an incredibly light-weight tube of glass created from lightning, it is clear that our planet is capable of some amazing things. Glass, which we use for so many different things on so many different levels, was not first created by man, but by the natural processes of our living planet. We have taken so many pages from Earth’s book of inventions and used them for our own, and yet I believe we have so much yet to learn from Earth’s book. We would not have known that silicon and oxygen atoms realign in such a way to form glass under extreme heat had Earth not shown us that phenomena first. Next time you explore a vast desert, pay attention to the tiny grains of sand. Recognize that they contain beautiful minerals created deep under ground. Scour the sands long enough and you may find a fulgurite. Before using your fulgurite to summon a demon to vanquish your enemies, admire the incredible work of nature in creating your lightning tube.

 

If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.

 

Sources:

*Stuff Matters. Book written by Mark Miodownik.

*https://www.nps.gov/articles/grsa-fulgurites.htm

*https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-weather/stories/fulgurites-when-lightning-strikes-sand-magic-is-formed

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