Picture this: it’s July or August and the day is hot and humid. To the west white clouds appear, then become darker as a front approaches. Thunder is the first warning of the approaching storm, followed by flashes of lightning.
As the storm passes over the beach or crosses a sand dune, bolts of lightning streak to the ground and a remarkable transformation occurs.
Superheating the air to temperatures anywhere between 8000-30,000 degrees Celsius, when the lighting strikes the sand, the silica—the main mineral the makes up sand—melts and hardens into the long, fragile shapes of fulgurite.
Although conditions on the Outer Banks are ideal for creating fulgurite—lots of unprotected sand and occasional thunderstorms, finding it is a rare thing.
Fulgurite tends to be a little darker than the sand surrounding it, although the shading difference is slight, almost as though it’s camouflaging itself. What appears on the surface is usually just a small tip—the rest buried as deeply as the bolt of lightning pierced the ground.
And it’s incredibly fragile.
Typically if fulgurite is found, attempts to free it from the ground result in breaking. But if it is preserved, what is seen is a type of fused quartz that is remarkable in its subtle beauty.
Here’s a definition of fulgurite we found from the Mineral Research Company that describes the hidden beauty of fulgurite.
“The inner surfaces and openings of the tubes are usually smooth and glassy, in some specimens resembling an applied glaze, sometimes with blister-like bubbling present.”
Because it is so fragile, and so difficult to even find, the fulgurite collections at Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the Nellie Pridgen Collection at the Beachcomber’s Museum in Nags Head are remarkable.
The massive piece of fulgurite at the Outer Banks Beachcomber’s Museum in particular is worth a look. About 8” or 9” across, it is not shaped like most fulgurite. Somewhat disc shaped, the narrow tubes that are common in fulgurite are there, but not nearly as pronounced.
As large as that fulgurite is, it is not even close to being the largest ever found. That distinction belongs to a single piece of the mineral that was found in Florida. Excavated by the University of Florida in 1997 it consists of two tree root-like branches, one 17’ long, the other 16’.
That a piece of fulgurite that large could even be removed intact is remarkable.
The Outer Banks has two types of fulgurite. The sand dunes, regularly scoured by the winds, have a very fine grain of silica and that is the most likely location for a long tendril of the mineral to be found. Fulgurite that is found on the beach tends to be more irregular and will sometimes have shell material embedded in it.
Either type, though, will sometimes find its way to jewelers. With its glass-like interior it can create a truly unique piece of jewelry. Ginny Flowers, owner of Cloud Nine in Nags Head, loves its look and the potential each piece has to be something completely different. She does caution though that it is not everyday jewelry, pointing out fulgurite is very fragile.
How much fulgurite exists on the Outer Banks?
That’s hard to say. Small pieces of it are probably fairly common, but a 1945 paper on the mineral seems to indicate large finds are very rare indeed.
Writing a treatise entitled Nags Head and Fulgurite, author Jeff Hill was astonished at what he found and even more so when he took his discovery to the experts.
“I picked up a few inches of it that I found lying on the ground and took it to the University of North Carolina for identification…There I learned its identity and how very rare it is. I was told that this specimen was the first fulgurite reported found in North Carolina,” he wrote.
The discovery did not come without some discomfort, he also noted.
“Nature guards this treasure well. The price we had to pay was agony from mosquitoes, red bugs, and all too frequent con-tact with quicksand. Have I forgotten to mention sunburn?…No one who wishes to live to a ripe old age should go into the fulgurite business, at least not at Nags Head.”