Cloud-to-Ground Lightning May Have Struck a Key Ingredient for Life

In 2016, lightning struck the backyard of an Illinois family, vaporizing the clay-rich soil underground. It cooled to form what looked like a half-meter-tall, gnarled tree trunk with a glassy surface and a crust of charred soil.

Fulgurite is the phosphorus-rich rock that sometimes forms when lightning hits the ground or, in this case, a tree trunk. Credit: Benjamin Hess

“It’s pretty cool looking,” said Benjamin Hess, a Ph.D. student at Yale University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. At the time, Hess was an undergraduate studying geology at Wheaton College, to which the family donated the fulgurite (material formed when lightning strikes ground) from the strike.

The fulgurite contained an unusual…

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