Soon after the onset of an eruption, model forecasts of ash dispersal are used to mitigate the hazards to aircraft, infrastructure and communities downwind. However, it is a significant challenge to constrain the model inputs during an evolving eruption. Here we demonstrate that volcanic lightning may be used in tandem with satellite detection to recognize and quantify changes in eruption style and intensity. Using the eruption of Calbuco volcano in southern Chile on 22-23 April 2015, we investigate rates of umbrella cloud expansion from satellite observations, occurrence of lightning, and mapped characteristics of the fall deposits. Our remote-sensing analysis gives a total erupted volume that is within uncertainty of the mapped volume (0.56 ±0.28 km3 bulk). Observations and volcanic plume modeling further suggest that electrical activity was enhanced both by ice formation in the ash clouds >10 km asl and development of a low-level charge layer from ground-hugging currents.