Advances in global lightning detection have provided novel ways to characterize explosive volcanism. However, researchers are still at the early stages of understanding how volcanic plumes become electrified on different spatial and temporal scales. We deconstructed the phreatomagmatic eruption of Taal volcano (Philippines) on 12 January 2020 to investigate the origin of its powerful volcanic thunderstorm. Satellite analysis indicated that the water-rich plume rose >10 km high before creating lightning detected by Vaisala's global lightning data set (GLD360). Flash rates increased with plume heights and cloud expansion over time, producing >70 flashes min–1. Photographs revealed a highly electrified region at the base of the umbrella cloud, where we infer strong convective updrafts and icy collisions enhanced the electrical activity. These findings inform a conceptual model with overlapping regimes of charge generation in wet eruptions—initially due to ash particle collisions near the vent, followed by thunderstorm-like electrification in icy regions of the upper plume. Despite the wide reach of Taal's ash cloud, most of the lightning occurred within 20–30 km of the volcano, producing thousands of hazardous cloud-to-ground flashes over a densely populated area. The eruption demonstrates that volcanic lightning can pose a hazard in its own right, embedded within the broader hazards of explosive volcanism in an urban setting.

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