Fulgurites: What is Fulgurite and Types of Fulgurite

What is Fulgurite?

Fulgurites are natural hollow glass tubes often formed during lightning strikes, in quartzose sand, silica, or soil. Sometimes they are referred to as petrified lightning. This process occurs over a timespan of around one second. The lightning bolt traveled through a thick layer of dry sand, and it heated to a temperature greater than 18000 C  (32000 F). 

Fulgurites are usually occurring beneath the surface of the sand and their shape reflects the way that makes lightning as it dispersed into the ground.

Fulgurites resemble roots with rough surface. However, the inner surface is smooth and glassy, because of the fact that the sand cools rapidly and solidifies. Their size is based on the strength of the lightning and the thickness of the sand bed.

Lightning is more frequent during certain times of the year, so fulgurite formation also follows this pattern. They are more likely to form during the summer months when thunderstorms are more prevalent.

Fulgurite: a Petrifying Flash of Lightning!
Fulgurite: a Petrifying Flash of Lightning. Photo: Fulgurite Lightning Portugal/Facebook

Although most of those found are only a few inches in length, some have been found which are thirty feet or more in length. Small pebbles in the sand frequently cling to the fulgurites. Some fulgurites are no larger in diameter than a soda straw, and others have the diameter of a good sized carrot.

Fulgurites are fragile and should be dug out with extreme care and patience. When one is found there may be others near it, or it may be the only one present. The objective of the trip might be gemstone pebbles, or microfossils, or small crystals, or colored sand for sand bottles, but the possibility of fulgurites should be in the consciousness of the collector. 

The technical name for naturally fused sand is lechatelierite. The fulgurite will be mainly silica. It will have the same exterior color as the surrounding sands, but perhaps a little darker in appearance because of the dark fused glass interior. Sand colors vary from beige to buff to gray, charcoal, or drab muted tints of pink, yellow or green. These other colors are due to the presence of other minerals than quartz in the sand. Some of these minerals may be feldspar, hornblende, biotite, and clay and iron minerals.

The fulgurites are known since 1711 and they are appreciated for their scientific value. A fulgurite that is 250 million years old found in the Sahara, has confirmed that the desert was a fertile area where the storms were frequent.

The favorite places to look for the deposits of this mineraloid are the deserts, coastal dunes, on lake shores, sea shores, sandy hills where lightning often strikes, sandy cliffs by rivers, on islands, and in sandy fields. Fulgurites have been reported in the following states, but the list is probably only a beginning: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and California 

Formation of Fulgurites

Fulgurites are formed when a lightning bolt strikes the ground and melts the sand, soil, or rock. The intense heat of the lightning bolt can reach temperatures of up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to melt any material on Earth.

The lightning bolt also creates a shock wave that travels through the ground and shatters the surrounding rocks and minerals. The molten sand, soil, and rock then flow into the cracks and fractures created by the shock wave.

As the molten material cools, it forms a glass tube or branching structure. The shape of the fulgurite is determined by the path of the lightning bolt as it traveled through the ground.

Types of Fulgurites

There are five main types of fulgurites, classified based on the material the lightning strikes:

Sand Fulgurites: These are the most common type of fulgurite, typically found in deserts or beaches with loose, dry sand. They resemble hollow, branching tubes with a glassy interior and a rough, melted-sand exterior. Their size and shape depend on the intensity of the lightning strike and the depth of the sand.

Soil Fulgurites: These fulgurites form in various soil types, including clay-rich, silt-rich, or loess. They can have a wider range of shapes than sand fulgurites, appearing as tubes, branches, blobs, or irregular masses. They may also produce exogenic fulgurites, also known as droplet fulgurites, which are small glass beads ejected during the lightning strike.

Caliche Fulgurites: These uncommon fulgurites form in caliche-rich soil, a type of soil with a high calcium carbonate content. They are characterized by thick walls with a lower glass content compared to other fulgurites.

Rock Fulgurites: Formed when lightning strikes rocks, these fulgurites appear as glassy veins or branching channels along the rock surface or lining cracks within the rock. They are more massive and harder than other fulgurites and are commonly found on mountaintops, which are natural lightning rods.

Exogenous fulgurites: they can be spherical or drop-shaped.

Fulgurite: a Petrifying Flash of Lightning!. Exogenic Fulgurites
Exogenic Fulgurites. Photo: WorthPoint Corporation

Exogenic Fulgurites

Exogenic fulgurites feature an amorphous and often bubbly appearance due to the rapid manner in which the airborne, liquefied materials cool down. They are generally dark green in colour (as a result of a moderate iron oxide content), differing from traditional fulgurites, which are typically carrot, brown or tan.

Fulgurites Occurrence and Distribution

Fulgurites are rare occurrences, but they can be found all over the world wherever lightning strikes loose, sandy soil or exposed rock. Some locations are known for a higher concentration of fulgurites due to specific geographic conditions that favor frequent lightning strikes and sandy or rocky landscapes. Here are some notable locations:

Deserts: Due to the arid climate and presence of loose sand, deserts are prime locations for finding sand fulgurites. The Sahara Desert, Namib Desert, and deserts of the southwestern United States are known to have yielded numerous fulgurites.

Beaches: Sandy beaches are another habitat for fulgurites. The exposure to lightning strikes and the presence of loose sand create favorable conditions for their formation.

Mountaintops: Mountain peaks are natural lightning rods, attracting frequent strikes. Lightning striking rocks on mountaintops can create spectacular rock fulgurites. Examples include areas in the European Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rocky Mountains.

Grasslands: While less common than deserts or beaches, fulgurites can also be found in grasslands where there is exposed soil or underlying sandy layers.

It's important to note that fulgurites are not evenly distributed within these locations and can be quite rare. Finding a fulgurite often requires a combination of chance and knowledge of where to look. Knowing the types of fulgurites and the typical landscapes where they form can increase your chances of spotting one on your outdoor adventures.

See also:
Rainbow Obsidian
Rare Blue Skarn

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