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When lightning strikes the beach, it vaporizes the sand ⁠— and makes these glass tubes

Lightning strikes ocean shore in South Carolina

Bolts of lightning struck the ocean shore in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, during a thunderstorm on July 5, 2019. The National Weather Service had said thunderstorms in the area could produce “frequent and deadly lightning.”
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Bolts of lightning struck the ocean shore in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, during a thunderstorm on July 5, 2019. The National Weather Service had said thunderstorms in the area could produce “frequent and deadly lightning.”

When lightning strikes the beach or desert, the electricity vaporizes the sand in less than a second, creating a geological phenomenon you might have to see to believe.

The sand vaporizes as the lightning bolt shoots through the surface and creates temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Parks Service.

Then the explosion turns the sand to glass tubes called fulgurites.

“Their shape mimics the path of the lightning bolt as it disperses into the ground,” according to Utah Geologic Survey.

Beachcombers can find the glass tubes, which are typically small, in areas where lightning has hit the sand.

The Outer Banks town of Corolla in North Carolina is a hot spot for finding the unique geological formations, according to Our State magazine.

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Florida Geologic Survey

According to the Florida Geologic Survey, “The rock and sediment in the path of the lightning bolt can actually fuse or vaporize due to the extreme heat, leaving behind a glassy tube. These glassy tubes are called fulgurites and are commonly found in some parts of Florida.”

State officials said they look like glass straws. “They are found in areas where vegetation is sparse and the underlying sand and sandy soil has been eroded. So keep your eye out for these amazing geologic representations of one of nature’s most powerful releases of energy,” FGS said.

There are two types of fulgurites, according to the Mississippi Office of Geology: sand and rock. “Rock fulgurites typically consist of a glass crust formed when lightning strikes bare rock surfaces,” according to the department. “Sand fulgurites take the form of hollow glass tubes of various shapes and are found in silica-rich sediments, typically outcrops of quartz sands or quartz sand beaches.”

According to the National Parks Service, “’Fulgur’ is the Latin word for lightning. Cicero, a philosopher of the Roman Empire era, used the expression ‘condere fulmina,’ meaning ‘to dig up thunderbolts’ — indicating early Romans had knowledge of fulgurite formation in sandy areas of Italy.“

Online searches for fulgurites show a number of fulgurite samples for sale. Many people call them “petrified lightning.”

People can collect fulgurites on many beaches, but not in national parks.

“If you find a fulgurite in the dunes, please study and enjoy it, but leave it in the sand for the next visitor to also enjoy. Natural and cultural resources in national parks belong to all Americans, protected by law for the enjoyment of this and future generations,” the National Parks Service said.

Lightning is more dangerous than many people think. Watch this fun and informative video from the National Weather Service in Missoula so that you will learn how to be safe!

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.
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