What is lightning

Lighting Strike

As we enter mid-spring and the weather eventually begins to warm up a bit, we hope to see a number of thunderstorms in Oregon. Inspiring awe in some while scaring the trousers off others (but not ME, I am definitely not scared of lightning. No sir,) it’s not surprising that cultures all over the world associate lightning with deity. But what precisely is it?

During an electrical storm, the upper portion of the storm clouds has a positive charge and the lower portion has a negative charge. It’s not quite clear how the clouds attain these charges in the first place, but one theory is that different forms of liquid (vapor, water and ice droplets) collide as they rise and fall within a cloud. In the collision, electrons are knocked from the rising moisture and they collect at the base of the cloud, producing the negative charge. It is 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.

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 called leaders, and they provide a route through the cloud for the lightning to follow. The first (or stepped) leader does not move smoothly, but jumps in a jagged fashion. Many leaders form at the same time, but the first one to make contact with the ground is the one that gets the lightning.

The entire process is a bit more complicated, but there you have the fundamentals of how lightning is formed. Lightning is much too powerful for even the best of surge protectors to protect against, and it may reach temperatures of 54,000 °F. An average bolt of lightning carries about 30,000 amps.

Lightning is a complex phenomenon with many variations and exceptions. Sometimes it shows up in the most unexpected of places.

For example, do you know:

Why We See Lightning During Volcanic Eruptions?

If you saw photos of the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in 2010, you might have seen lightning within the plumes of smoke and thought that they surely must be photoshopped. Not so!

There’s still research being conducted to the definitive cause behind lightning within the smoke plumes of volcanoes, but the general consensus involves, of all things, dust. The idea is that dust/smoke/ash particles carry little charges which become amplified during the chaos of rushing out of a volcano. With every collision of one particle with another, the charges become more and more polarized until lightning is inevitable since the polarization becomes too great for the atmosphere to resist the flow of electricity. The lightning neutralizes the charge separation, essentially relieving the tension 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 likely as the result of a heavy charge inside the volcano itself.

How Many Different Types of Lightning There Are?

The answer to this question depends on who you ask, and what you consider a”type” of lightning. The typical classifications are as follows:

Cloud-to-cloud (intercloud, which is lightning moving between separate clouds, and intracloud, that’s lightning moving within the same cloud).

Cloud-to-ground (Less common but more dangerous than cloud to cloud. If anything on the ground is struck by lightning, it was cloud-to-ground.) Cloud-to-ground lightning is more complicated than a simple bolt shooting directly from a cloud, however, and contains 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 other kinds of lightning, and normally have a reddish-orange hue.)

Lightning can be occasionally further defined as:

Ribbon lightning (Successive strokes of lightning are displaced by wind, resulting in a broadened appearance, almost like a double-exposed photograph ).

Bead lightning (The decay of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, resulting in a beaded appearance. This occurs very quickly and is hard to capture.)

St. Elmo’s Fire This is not actually lightning, but often closely associated with it and noticed 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 from plasma (ionized atmosphere 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 in the place where there is a drastic difference in charge between the atmosphere and an object such as the mast of a boat or the steeple of a church. St. Elmo’s Fire is exactly the identical thing that occurs in a fluorescent tube- basically a continuous spark, glowing blue because of the particular combination of air molecules. It may also choose a purple color.

St. Elmo’s Fire is quite difficult to locate accurate images or videos 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 midst of storms). A simple way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire doesn’t look like lightning- rather it emits a continuous glow.

Ball lightning- The most mysterious sort of”lightning”, there’s some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning really exists.

How to Stay Safe During a Thunderstorm?

If you are in the water when a storm begins, get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Lightning strikes will follow anything that conducts electricity, so stay off your mobile phone during a storm and turn off/unplug your computers. If lightning strikes your house, even the most powerful of surge protectors will have trouble protecting your equipment. (Radio waves do not conduct electricity, so as long as your cell phone isn’t plugged in to an outlet and you are not standing outside during the storm with the metal apparatus held to your face, it’s safe to use it. They don’t strangely”attract” lightning more than any other object 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 information.
If you are caught in a thunderstorm and can’t get inside to security, crouch low to the ground but don’t lay flat. Try to keep as much of your body from touching the ground as you can, because you’re in more danger of being hurt by currents traveling across the ground after a lightning strike than of being stricken directly by a bolt.
A flash-to-bang (seeing lightning to hearing thunder) ratio of 5 seconds equals one mile of distance from the lightning. Ten seconds equals 2 miles, etc..
Lightning in Mythology

One has only to see an electric storm themselves to comprehend why so many people have connected lightning and thunder with deity. A few popular legends and myths about lightning:

Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) is the planetary god of thunder, and his principal weapon is the thunderbolt (given to him by the Cyclops).
The Thunderbird common to North American indigenous cultures is thought to create thunder by the beating of its wings, and lightning is created by glowing snakes that it carries or directly from its eyes.
There’s a lot more to learn about lightning in all its various incarnations. It’s a stark reminder of the unbelievable strong forces of nature that surround us on all sides. Despite how much we understand about it on a scientific level, we may always be inclined to associate with this unbelievable force with deity.

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