Author is a teacher in science and a keen observer of nature.
Lightning is a Fascinating Phenomenon
People are always fascinated by the aesthetic beauty of the thunderbolt, and are thrilled by the phenomenon.Lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge in the event of the formation of a thunderstorm, between electrically charged regions of a cloud, between that cloud and another cloud, or between a cloud and the ground. Lightning is a climate-related, highly localized phenomenon in nature having dangerous consequences on livestock, plants, humans and their belongings.
What are the Facts About Lightning?
Lightning occurs due to the convergence of a warm, vertically rising air column with the cooler upper air mass. These rising air currents carry water vapour which, on meeting the cooler air, usually condenses, forming small bits of ice giving rise to convective storm-like activity. As the frozen particles bump each other, create electric charges and induce charges in the entire cloud. Pressure and temperature are such that the vertical air movement becomes self-sustaining, forming the basis of a cumulonimbus cloud formation with its central core capable of rising to more than 15,000 meters.
The cloud needs to be 3 to 4 km deep in order to generate lightning. The positive charges or protons form at the top of the cloud and the negative charges or electrons form at the bottom of the cloud. Since opposite charges are induced, a positive charge builds up on the ground beneath the cloud takes place. The electrical charge concentrates on the ground, around anything that sticks up, such as mountains, people, or lonely tree on a ground. The charge coming up from these points eventually connects with the charge reaching down from the clouds in an attempt to neutralize and the ‘bolts from the blue’ are formed. The taller the cloud, the more frequent the lightning is. The center column of the cumulonimbus can have updrafts exceeding 120 km/hr, creating intense turbulence with violent wind shears and consequential danger to aircraft. This same updraft gives rise to an electric charge separation which ultimately leads to the lightning flash causing damages in nature, fractures or fire in buildings, chimneys, damage to appliances in the buildings.
Most Common Types of Lightning
Lightning occurs commonly during thunderstorms and other types of energetic weather systems. Volcanic lightning occurs during volcanic eruptions.
The three main kinds of lightning are
- Heat lightning, which can be seen from a great distance but not heard.
- Dry lightning that occurs with no precipitation at the surface and is the most common natural cause of wildfires, and
- Ribbon lightning, which has the ability to electrocute living beings that occurs in thunderstorms with high crosswinds and multiple return strokes.
Some Curious Lightning Related Questions and Answers
What is a Thunderstorm?
A storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect the thunder on the earth’s atmosphere is a thunderstorm. Cumulonimbus clouds bring thunderstorms which are often accompanied by strong winds and heavy rains and sometimes snow, sleet and hail.
The lightning produces enormous amounts of energy with brilliant flashes of visible light accompanied by wide range of electromagnetic radiations including hot plasma during lightning. In a fraction of a second, lightning heats the air around it to incredible temperatures—as hot as 54,000 °F (30,000 °C). That is five times hotter than the surface of the Sun! The heated air expands explosively, creating a shock wave as the surrounding air is rapidly compressed. The air then contracts rapidly as it cools. This creates an initial cracking sound, followed by rumbles as the column of air continues to vibrate.
How is Lightning Related to Thunder?
A sudden increase in pressure caused due to the electric discharge creates shock waves in the gases in the vicinity and these vibrations create a sound which we call thunder. Depending on the distance and nature of the lightning, it can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble (brontide)or a sonic shock wave, often referred to as a "thunderclap" or "peal of thunder". The study of thunder itself is a branch of science, known as brontology.
What is Astraphobia?
Astraphobia is the extreme fear of thunderstorms or lightning with thunder. It is very common in some animals like dogs, children and rarely seen in adults. Many children having such a fear outgrow it, but others will continue to have astraphobia in adulthood. It might develop in some people in adulthood though they haven’t experienced it in childhood. This is a treatable anxiety disorder. So it is always advisable to take people who show extreme reactions to thunder to psychological counseling to overcome the fear. This will help to prevent the problems like panic both before and during a storm, chest pain, nausea, trouble in breathing, heart palpitations, obsessive desire to monitor the storm, clinging to others for protection, crying and so on.In such cases, though the person understands that the feelings are overblown, irrational, irritating to others cannot curtail them. These symptoms are triggered by weather reports, conversations, or sudden sound such as a clap of thunder. Sights and sounds that are similar to lightning and thunder can also trigger these symptoms which may be debilitating,overwhelming,or insurmountable leading to depressions and a tendency to commit suicide.
Why do we witness a flash of light before hearing thunder?
If we are watching the sky, we see the lightning before we hear the thunder. That is because light travels much faster than sound waves. We can estimate the distance of the lightning by counting how many seconds it takes until we hear the thunder. It takes approximately 5 seconds for the sound to travel 1 mile. If the thunder follows the lightning almost instantly, you know the lightning is too close and immediate shelter or care to be taken to avoid danger.
Measurement of the intensity of lightning and thunder
An airborne optical pulse sensor called Ebert Spectrometer is used to measure the spectral characteristics of lightning discharges. The spectral range of this instrument is from below 600 nm to almost 900 nm (infrared spectrum).
The loudness of thunder can be expressed in decibels (dB). A clap of thunder typically about 120 dB is close to the ground stroke. Normal conversation is about 60dB. This is why auditory problems might occur in case of a lightning strike nearby.
What are the Ways by which People get Struck by Lightning?
- Direct Strikes: The most deadly ones. In this, a portion of the current passes over the skin producing burns and another portion passes through the cardiovascular or nervous system completely electro-cauterize the person. Chances of survival are least here. The amount of current passing through the body is a major factor that decides the fatality of the victim.
- A Side Flash: Person becomes a “short circuit” for some energy to pass to get grounded in case of a side flash. This occurs when a person takes shelter under a tree to avoid rain or hail during which lightning discharge takes place.
- Ground Current: When much of the energy travels out from the strike point, usually through conductors ground current causes fatalities. Most of the lightning casualties happen to humans and livestock in this way.
- Conduction: Most of the indoor and outdoor casualties occur when metal provides an easy way to travel long distances from the point of strike. Anything plugged into the electrical outlet, water faucets and showers, corded phones, windows and doors provide easy passage to charges get neutralized.
- Streamers: Sometimes as the downward leader (channel of charged air created by excess electrons in a thunderstorm cloud) approaches the ground streamers (a channel of charged air created by protons on the ground developed from the ground to contact the leader, though the lightning channel is not completed between steamer and leader, a person caught in the streamer can provide a path for the bright return stroke(an electrical charge that travels from the ground to a thundercloud)and get electrocuted. This is not as common as other injuries.
Whenever a victim gets struck in lightning immediate medical attention to be given as it is difficult to know how he has been struck.
How Far Away Can You See Lightning and Hear Thunder?
Within those distant thunderstorms, the lightning bolts can be seen as much as 100 miles from us, depending on the height of the bolt, the clarity of the air, and our elevation. Thunder, in comparison, has a much shorter range of detection - usually less than 15 miles in a quiet rural setting and under 5 miles in a noisy city environment.
Which Regions are more Prone to Lightning in India?
The Lightning strikes have been dominantly observed all over India, maximum intensity observed is in eastern India in Chotanagpur plateau that is a confluence of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Chattisgarh. An increase in moisture as well as ice particles produced when the moisture begins to glaciate in the updraft, causes charge differential builds up more significantly in these regions. The result is, increased formation of thunderstorms and lightning.
What is the Lightning Capital of the World?
The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Lake Maracaibo in north-western Venezuela has the most lightning. Both places have a lot of precipitation and the ideal humidity and atmospheric conditions for thunderstorms to form, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.
Are there any Benefits of Lightning?
Nitrogen is one of the macronutrients needed for the growth of plants. The heat energy released during lightning helps inert nitrogen to combine with oxygen of the air and the usable oxides of nitrogen so formed come down with rain showers to the ground. This makes plants, mushrooms and other organisms grow well after a thunderstorm followed by lightning and downpour.
Can one Survive Lightning?
Although it is rare, with the odds of getting struck in your lifetime being roughly 1 in 12,000, every now and then a human will provide an attractive target for lightning bolts to unleash their power! And of the roughly 500 - 2400 people who are struck by lightning each year, about 90% survive.
What Sense do you lose when Struck by Lightning?
The effects on the body can vary. Eyesight and hearing capacity may be adversely affected, due to lightning and a loud clap of the thunder. A person could be temporarily blinded or rupture of an eardrum may be caused and the heart could go into cardiac arrest due to thunderbolts.
Why is Lightning Mapping Important?
Lightning maps, lightning tracking, and lightning databases have many practical and academic uses.
- Severe storm detection and warning.
- Convective rainfall estimation.
- Weather warning for fishermen.
- Predicting aviation hazards.
- Warnings to power companies, fuel depots, golf courses, etc.
- Forest fire forecasting.
- Predicting cyclone development.
- Understanding the physics of the global electric circuit.
- Understanding the magnetosphere and ionosphere.
- Studies on NOx generation.
- Studies on whistler and other wave propagation phenomena.
- Magnetospheric-ionospheric research.
- Solar-troposphere studies.
Some More Interesting Facts About Lightning
A lightning flash is not more than one inch wide.
What we see as a flash of lightning maybe four different strokes in the same place, one right after another. That is why lightning appears to flicker.
30-30 Rule is an easy way to determine the threat of lightning in your area. Count the seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. If this time is less than 30 seconds, lightning is a threat. Seek shelter immediately.
For these reasons, maps that show the distribution of lightning across the Earth are important for economic, environmental, and safety reasons.
Tips to Avoid Losses Due to Lightning
- If you hear thunder, then you need to go indoors or get in a car but make sure the windows in the car are shut. Don't be outside, where lightning could strike!
- If your hair stands on end or your skin starts to tingle, lightning maybe about to strike. Get down on your hands and knees and keep your head tucked in. Do not lay flat, because it can give the lightning a better chance of striking you.
- Avoid sheds, picnic areas, baseball dugouts and open benches in the park.
- If there is no shelter around you, stay away from trees.
- Crouch down in the open area, keeping twice as far away from a tree as far as it is tall. Put your feet together and place your hands over your ears to minimize hearing damage from thunder.
- If you are with a group of people stay about 15 feet from each other.
- Stay out of the water, because it is a great conductor of electricity. Swimming, wading, snorkeling and scuba diving are not safe. Also, don’t stand in puddles and avoid metal.
- Stay away from clotheslines, fences, and drop your backpacks because they often have metal on them.
- If you’re playing an outdoor activity, wait at least 30 minutes after the last observed lightning strike or thunder.
- When you are inside the house avoid water. It’s a great conductor of electricity, so do not take a shower, wash your hands, wash dishes or do laundry.
- Do not use a corded telephone. Lightning may strike exterior phone lines.
- Do not use electric equipment like computers and appliances during a thunderstorm. Stay away from windows and doors and stay off from porches.
- To prevent any risk of accident, lightning air terminals should be used in buildings.
- Lightning strikes cause power surges in power cables or transmission lines. Hence, the need to protect with surge protection devices.
- To safeguard any type of building from lightning damage, it is essential to get a risk assessment done by lightning consultants so that a carefully designed integrated lightning protection system is installed.
Lightning is hazardous and deadly but it is an avoidable hazard. Globally, there are about 40 to 50 flashes of lightning every second, or nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year. These electrical discharges are powerful and are often fatal. Each year, lightning strikes kill people, livestock, and wildlife. Each year lightning is also responsible for billions of dollars in damage to buildings, communication systems, power lines, and electrical equipment. Besides, lightning costs airlines billions of dollars per year in flight rerouting and delays. Through education, people can increase their awareness and reduce the risk of injury and death.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Lakshmi U
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 10, 2020:
Well presented and full of information, nice article.
Jnatha on July 14, 2020:
Very informative and very much in detail...Got to know new things.
Arjun on July 13, 2020:
Nice insights.. got to know alot
sindhu gowda on July 13, 2020:
thank you, this was very informative
Vanitha a on July 13, 2020:
Very informative article miss
Annapurni on July 13, 2020:
Rohini on July 13, 2020:
Bhagyalaxmi S Rao on July 13, 2020:
Very informative Ma'am
Smitha suresh on July 13, 2020:
Very informative miss...
Aryan Surana on July 13, 2020:
Very informative... especially because I live where there's a lot of thunderstorms
Harshitha U on July 13, 2020:
This is a very nice and informative article!
Shrihitha Udupa on July 13, 2020:
Cijini Manoj from Kerala on July 12, 2020:
Wonderful article mam it covered everything.....
Sneha Bhat from India on July 12, 2020:
Thank you madam for sharing such a comprehensive article. This article clearly illustrates the formation of lightning, its causes, impacts and consequences.
From this article I have learnt a new term , 'Astraphobia'. Article is fully loaded with lots of information. Expecting many more articles from you madam.
Sneha on July 11, 2020:
Helpfull and great information. Detailed analysis
Manasa on July 11, 2020:
Varsha on July 11, 2020:
So well put :)
Ishitha on July 11, 2020:
Amazing!! So informative!
Shreevidhya on July 11, 2020:
Very nice information and detailed analysis