As we enter mid-spring and the weather eventually begins to warm up a bit, we expect to see quite a few thunderstorms in Oregon. Inspiring awe in certain while scaring the pants off others (but not ME, I am definitely not scared of lightning. No sir,) it is no surprise that cultures all over the world associate lightning with deity. But just what is it?
It is not quite clear how the clouds attain these charges in the first place, but one theory is that different kinds of liquid (vapor, ice and water droplets) collide as they rise and fall inside a cloud. In the crash, electrons are knocked from the moisture and they gather at the bottom of the cloud, creating the negative charge. It’s believed that rising moisture then carries a positive charge to the peak of the cloud. The charge separation within the cloud is what creates an electrical field, the strength of which can be linked to the amount of charge buildup in the cloud.
When the electric charge within the cloud becomes quite strong, the air becomes ionized (the positive ions and electrons are spaced further apart than before and the electrons can move more freely.) The powerful ionization causes the air to begin to break down, allowing for currents to flow in an attempt to neutralize the charge. These currents are known as leaders, and they provide a path through the cloud for the lightning to follow. The first (or stepped) leader doesn’t move easily, but jumps in a jagged fashion. Many leaders form at precisely the same time, but the first one to make contact with the floor is the one that gets the lightning.
The entire process is somewhat more complicated, but there you have the fundamentals of how lightning is formed. Lightning is much too strong for even the best of surge protectors to protect against, and it can reach temperatures of 54,000 °F. (For comparison- the surface of the sun is just about 9,900 °F.) An average bolt of lightning carries about 30,000 amps.
Lightning is a complex phenomenon with many exceptions and variations.
For example, do you know:
Why We Watch Lightning During Volcanic Eruptions?
If you saw photos of the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in 2010, you may have seen lightning within the plumes of smoke and thought that they definitely need to be photoshopped. Not so!
There’s still research being conducted to the definitive reason for lightning within the smoke plumes of volcanoes, but the general consensus involves, of all things, dust. The idea is that dust/smoke/ash particles take little charges which become amplified during the chaos of racing from a volcano. With every collision of a single particle with another, the charges become more and more polarized until lightning is unavoidable because the polarization becomes too great for the atmosphere to resist the flow of electricity. The lightning neutralizes the charge separation, essentially relieving the strain of polarization.
There’s another lesser known sort of volcanic lightning, however, which occurs right at the mouth of the volcano and is much less orderly (not the ordinary branching, bolting lightning we’re used to seeing), manifesting as chaotic sparks probably as the result of a hefty charge inside the volcano itself.
How Many Different Kinds of Lightning You will find?
The typical classifications are as follows:
Cloud-to-cloud (intercloud, which is lightning moving between separate clouds, and intracloud, which is lightning moving in the same cloud).
Cloud-to-ground lightning is more complex than a simple bolt shooting directly from a cloud, however, and includes charges moving up and down from both the cloud and the ground.
Cloud-to-sky (Also called sprites, cloud-to-sky lightning occurs in the upper atmosphere. They lack the hot temperatures of different types of lightning, and normally have a reddish-orange hue.)
Lightning is also occasionally further specified as:
Bead lightning (The corrosion of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, resulting in a beaded appearance. This happens very quickly and is difficult to capture.)
St. Elmo’s Fire This is not actually lightning, but often closely associated with it and seen during electrical storms. St. Elmo’s Fire (not to be confused with ball lightning as it frequently is) is caused by a gap in electric charge. It’s made of plasma (ionized air that emits a glow) and, while lightning is the movement of power from a charged point, St. Elmo’s Fire is a coronal discharge that sparks up at the area where there is a drastic difference in charge between the atmosphere and an object like the mast of a boat or the steeple of a church. St. Elmo’s Fire is exactly the same thing that occurs in a fluorescent tube- basically a constant spark, glowing blue due to the particular combination of air molecules. It may also choose a purple hue.
St. Elmo’s Fire is quite difficult to locate accurate videos or images of. Many videos exist that claim to be St. Elmo’s Fire but are actually just static discharge (a frequent occurrence around airplanes in the middle of storms). An easy way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire does not look like lightning- rather it emits a steady glow.
Ball lightning- The most mysterious sort of”lightning”, there’s some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning actually exists.
Lightning regularly strikes water, so never go swimming or boating during a storm. If you are in the water when a storm starts, get out of the water as quickly as you can.
Lightning strikes will follow anything that conducts electricity, so stay off your landline phone during a storm and flip off/unplug your computers. If lightning strikes your property, even the strongest of surge protectors will have trouble protecting your equipment. (Radio waves do not conduct electricity, so as long as your mobile phone isn’t plugged in to an outlet and you are not standing outside during the storm using the metallic apparatus held to your face, it is safe to use it. They don’t inexplicably”attract” lightning more than any other item with metal inside ).
Lightning does in fact strike twice (the Empire State building is struck 20-25 times per year), so don’t rely on old adages for your security details.
If you’re caught in a thunderstorm and cannot get inside to security, crouch low to the ground but do not lay flat. Try to keep as much of your body from touching the ground as possible, since you are in more danger of being injured by currents traveling across the ground after a lightning strike than of being stricken straight by a bolt.
Ten seconds equals two miles, etc..
Lightning in Mythology
One has only to view an electric storm themselves to comprehend why so many people have associated lightning and thunder with deity. A few popular legends and myths about lightning:
The Thunderbird common to North American native cultures is said to create thunder by the beating of its wings, and lightning is made by glowing snakes it conveys or directly from its eyes.
Thor is the Norse hammer-wielding god of thunder.
There is a lot more to learn about lightning in all its various incarnations. It’s a stark reminder of the unbelievable powerful forces of nature that surround us on all sides.