As we enter mid-spring and the weather eventually starts to warm up a little, we expect to see quite a few thunderstorms in Oregon. Inspiring awe in certain while scaring the trousers off others (but not ME, I’m definitely not scared of lightning. But what exactly is it?
It is 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 inside a cloud. In the crash, electrons are knocked off of the moisture and they gather at the base of the cloud, producing the negative charge. It’s thought that rising moisture then carries a positive charge to the top of the cloud. The charge separation within the cloud is what generates an electric field, the strength of which can be linked to the quantity of charge buildup in the cloud.
When the electric charge inside the cloud becomes very powerful, 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 atmosphere 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 smoothly, but jumps in a jagged fashion. Many leaders form at precisely 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 complex, but there you have the fundamentals of how lightning is formed.
Lightning is a complex phenomenon with many exceptions and variations. Sometimes it shows up in the most unexpected of places.
For example, do you understand:
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 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 racing from a volcano. With every collision of one particle with a different one, the charges become more and more 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, essentially relieving the strain of polarization.
There is another lesser known sort of volcanic lightning, however, which happens 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 probably as the result of a heavy charge within the volcano itself.
How Many Different Types of Lightning You will find?
The Common 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. If anything on the earth is struck by lightning, it was cloud-to-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 is also occasionally further specified as:
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 noticed during electrical storms. St. Elmo’s Fire (not to be confused with ball lightning as it often is) is the result of a gap in electrical charge. It’s made from 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 place where there’s 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 the identical thing that happens in a fluorescent tube- essentially 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 difficult 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 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- instead it emits a continuous glow.
Ball lightning- The most mysterious sort of”lightning”, there is some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning actually 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.
If you are in the water when a storm starts, get out of the water as fast as you can.
Lightning strikes will follow anything that conducts electricity, so keep off your mobile telephone during a storm and turn 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 into 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 do not inexplicably”attract” lightning over any other item with metal inside ).
Lightning does actually strike twice (the Empire State building is struck 20-25 times a year), so don’t rely on old adages for your security 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 keep as much of your body from touching the floor as you can, since you are in more danger of being hurt by currents traveling across the ground after a lightning strike than of being stricken directly by a bolt.
Ten seconds equals 2 miles, etc..
Lightning in Mythology
One has only to see an electric storm themselves to comprehend why so many individuals have associated 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 primary 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 it carries or directly from its eyes.
There is so much more to learn about lightning in all of its various incarnations. It is 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 may always be inclined to associate this unbelievable force with deity.