Have you heard about lightning glass? It's a natural marvel that sometimes appears at sandy, storm-prone places, such as East Coast beaches - including Sandbridge Beach, VA.
Lightning glass forms when super-hot lightning - at least 1800 degrees Celsius (3,272 degrees Fahrenheit) - directly strikes the sand. In a flash (literally!) the white-hot lightning fuses with the sand's silica crystals (also known as quartz). Result: crusted glass tubes - technically called "fulgurites" - shaped like the path the lightning takes as it radiates through the ground.
Some lightning bolts can strike at 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more. That's when you might get fulgurites like the one at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History - a whopping 13 feet long!
Think of It as Petrified Lightning
When you visit Sandbridge Beach, you may want to keep an eye out for these lightning-glass wonders. They're uncommon but not as rare as you might think. And they're well worth the effort to find them.
Beach fulgurites are hollow. Inside, they're glass, either completely smooth or blistered with tiny bubbles. Outside, they're covered with coarse, semi-melted sand. Most are knobby tubes - about one to two inches in diameter - resembling drinking straws. But some look like strange, gnarled trees with intricate twisted branches.
If you spot a fulgurite, you may mistake it for sand-coated driftwood or something equally ordinary. But these bumpy glass tubes are actually quite special. As the product of a billion Boules of energy, they are literally petrified lightning. No wonder they're treasured as true collector's items, displayed in museums and private homes alike. Some specimens are even made into jewelry and sold at Etsy and eBay!
How to Recognize Fulgurites
- Start your search a day or two after a lightning storm has struck.
- Stroll along the shore, just as you would when you're searching for shells or driftwood.
- Look for tube-like "sticks" crusted with grainy sand. They could be white, yellow, grey, beige, or reddish. Often they blend right in with their sandy surroundings, so you have to stay alert!
- Pay attention to anything sticking out from the ground: Fulgurites are often partially submerged in sand.
If you think you've found a fulgurite, handle it with care. Although these structures contain solid glass, they can be quite brittle. The smooth glass interior - made of super-heated silica - is often pretty strong. But the outer crust made of melted sand is fragile. If you're not careful, the fulgurite could crumble and disintegrate right before your eyes.
Here's how to keep this from happening:
- Before removing the fulgurite, brush away loose sand and debris.
- Examine the fulgurite closely. How long is it? Is it partially sunk in the sand? Does it have a network of branches?
- If the fulgurite is a small, simple tube, pick it up gingerly and place it in a large rigid-bottom container, so it won't get jostled or crushed.
- If the fulgurite is larger and/or branchy, use a small shovel to gently dislodge it. (The shovel that came with your child's sand bucket should do the trick quite nicely.)
Sometimes fulgurite that's buried beneath the sand will gradually "emerge" as layers of soil wash or wear away. So, keep on strolling and searching. The more you comb the beach, the likelier you are to spot these hidden treasures!
Who knows? You may unearth a record-breaking fulgurite, like the one discovered at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1996. One of its branches was nearly 17 feet long! If you do happen upon a specimen that size, though, you'll want to enlist the help of professionals to help you move it safely.
Cool Things to Do With Lightning Glass
- Display it prominently on a shelf or mantel. For best results, keep it in a clear glass container to protect it from wear and tear.
- If the fulgurite is small, have it set in a ring or made into a pair of earrings. A jeweler who specializes in hand-crafting should be able to do this without damaging the specimen.
- If the fulgurite is large and intricate, consider selling it online. Some exceptional pieces of lightning glass can fetch up to several hundred dollars.
Some people believe that fulgurite has mystical healing and purifying properties. Others prize it simply for its unique, distinctive beauty. But all agree it's an amazing natural phenomenon - quite literally the vaporized "memory" of a fierce and fiery lightning bolt.
Find More Than Just Lightning Glass at Sandbridge Bridge, VA
Here in this serene seaside setting, you can enjoy all your favorite activities in unparalleled peace and privacy. Swim, surf, snorkel, sail, kayak, kiteboard, parasail, paddleboard, you name it. Bask in the sun, bike through unspoiled wilderness, cast your line for saltwater game fish from Little Island Pier, sample delicious fresh seafood at a waterfront restaurant... do all this and more. And still find time to explore and discover things you've never seen before - such as "petrified lightning."