As we enter mid-spring and the weather finally begins to warm up a little, we expect to see a number of thunderstorms in Oregon. Inspiring awe in some while scaring the trousers off others (although not ME, I’m definitely not scared of lightning. No sir,) it is not surprising that cultures all over the world associate lightning with deity. But what exactly is it?
During an electrical storm, the top portion of the storm clouds has a positive charge and the lower portion has a negative charge. It is not quite clear how the clouds reach 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 collision, electrons are knocked from the rising moisture and they collect 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 related to the quantity of charge buildup in the cloud.
The strong 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 path through the cloud for the lightning to follow. The initial (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 which gets the lightning.
The entire process is somewhat more complex, but there you have the basics of how lightning is formed. (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 over the plumes of smoke and thought that they surely must be photoshopped. Not so!
There is still research being conducted into the definitive reason for lightning within the smoke plumes of volcanoes, but the overall consensus involves, of all things, dust. The concept is that dust/smoke/ash particles take small charges that 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 air to withstand the flow of electricity. The lightning neutralizes the charge separation, basically 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 significantly less orderly (not the normal branching, bolting lightning we are used to seeing), manifesting as chaotic sparks likely 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 (Less common but more dangerous than cloud to cloud. Cloud-to-ground lightning is more complicated than a simple bolt shooting straight 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 types of lightning, and usually have a reddish-orange hue.)
Lightning is also occasionally further specified as:
Ribbon lightning (Successive strokes of lightning are displaced by wind, leading to a broadened appearance, almost like a double-exposed photograph ).
Bead lightning (The corrosion of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, causing a beaded look. This happens very quickly and is hard 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 often is) is caused by a gap in electrical charge. It’s made from plasma (ionized atmosphere that emits a glow) and, while lightning is the movement of electricity 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 air and an object such as the mast of a ship or the steeple of a church. St. Elmo’s Fire is exactly the same thing that happens in a fluorescent tube- essentially a continuous spark, glowing blue due to the particular mix of air molecules. It might also choose a purple hue.
St. Elmo’s Fire is very tricky to locate accurate videos or images of. Many videos exist which claim to be St. Elmo’s Fire but are actually just static discharge (a frequent phenomenon around planes in the middle of storms). An easy way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire doesn’t look like lightning- rather it emits a steady 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 equally to blame for the confusion.
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 keep off your mobile phone in a storm and flip off/unplug your computers. If lightning strikes your property, even the most powerful of surge protectors will have trouble protecting your equipment. (Radio waves don’t conduct electricity, so as long as your mobile phone isn’t plugged into an outlet and you’re not standing outside during the storm using the metallic device held to your face, it’s safe to use it. They do not strangely”attract” lightning more than any other item with metal in it).
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 safety details.
If you are 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 hurt by currents traveling across the ground after a lightning strike than of being stricken straight by a bolt.
A flash-to-bang (seeing lightning to hearing thunder) ratio of 5 minutes equals one mile of distance from the lightning. Ten seconds equals 2 miles, etc..
Lightning in Mythology
One has only to view an electric storm themselves to comprehend why so many individuals have associated 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 made by glowing snakes that it carries or directly from its eyes.
Thor is the Norse hammer-wielding god of thunder.
There’s so much more to learn about lightning in all of its various incarnations. It is a stark reminder of the unbelievable powerful forces of nature that surround us on all sides.