As we enter mid-spring and the weather finally begins to warm up a bit, we expect to see quite a few thunderstorms in Oregon. Inspiring awe in certain while scaring the trousers 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 what precisely is it?
During an electrical storm, the upper section of the storm clouds has a positive charge and the lower part has a negative charge. 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, water and ice droplets) collide as they rise and fall inside a cloud. In the crash, electrons are knocked from the moisture and they gather at the base of the cloud, creating the negative charge. It’s thought that rising moisture then carries a positive charge to the peak of the cloud. The charge separation within the cloud is what creates an electric field, the strength of which is linked to the quantity 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 effort 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 doesn’t 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 basics of how lightning is formed. Lightning is much too strong for even the best of surge protectors to protect against, and it may reach temperatures of 54,000 °F. (For comparison- the surface of the sun is only about 9,900 °F.) A single ampere of current is all it takes to kill a human!
Lightning is a complex phenomenon with many exceptions and variations.
For example, do you understand:
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 definitely need to be photoshopped. Not so!
There’s still research being conducted to the definitive cause behind lightning within the smoke plumes of volcanoes, but the overall 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 from a volcano. With every collision of one particle with a different one, the charges become increasingly polarized until lightning is unavoidable since the polarization becomes too great for the atmosphere to withstand the flow of electricity. The lightning neutralizes the charge separation, basically relieving the tension of polarization.
There is another lesser known sort of volcanic lightning, however, which happens 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 hefty charge within the volcano itself.
How Many Different Kinds of Lightning There Are?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask, and what you consider a”kind” of lightning. The Common classifications are as follows:
Cloud-to-cloud (intercloud, which is lightning moving between different clouds, and intracloud, that’s lightning moving in the same cloud).
Cloud-to-ground (Less common but more dangerous than cloud to cloud.
Cloud-to-sky (Also called sprites, cloud-to-sky lightning occurs in the upper atmosphere. They lack the hot temperatures of other types of lightning, and usually have a reddish-orange hue.)
Lightning can be sometimes further specified as:
Ribbon lightning (Successive strokes of lightning are displaced by wind, leading to a broadened appearance, almost like a double-exposed photo).
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 isn’t really 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 often is) is caused by a gap in electric charge. It’s made of 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 at 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 due to the particular mix of air molecules. It may also choose a purple color.
St. Elmo’s Fire is quite tricky to find 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 middle of storms). An easy way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire doesn’t look like lightning- instead it emits a continuous glow.
Ball lightning- The most mysterious type of”lightning”, there is some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning really exists. Arc faults along power lines (which appear as large, impossibly bright balls of light) and photographic anomalies are both to blame for the confusion.
How to Stay Safe During a Thunderstorm?
Lightning regularly strikes water, so never go swimming or boating during a storm. If you are in the water when a storm begins, get out of the water as quickly as you can.
Lightning strikes will follow anything that conducts electricity, so stay off your mobile telephone in a storm and flip 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 mobile phone isn’t plugged into an outlet and you are not standing outside during the storm with the metal apparatus held to your face, it is 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 a year), so don’t rely on old adages for your safety details.
If you’re caught in a thunderstorm and can’t get inside to security, crouch low to the ground but don’t lay flat. Try to maintain as much of your body from touching the floor as you can, because you are in more danger of being injured by currents traveling across the floor after a lightning strike than of being stricken straight 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 two miles, etc..
One has only to view an electric storm themselves to understand why so many individuals have connected lightning and thunder with deity. A few popular myths and legends 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 said to make thunder by the beating of its wings, and lightning is created by glowing snakes it carries or directly from its eyes.
There’s a lot more to learn about lightning in all of its various incarnations. It’s a stark reminder of the incredible strong forces of nature that surround us on all sides. Regardless of how much we learn about it on a scientific level, we might always be inclined to associate with this unbelievable force with deity.