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 certain while scaring the trousers off others (but not ME, I am definitely not scared of lightning. No sir,) it’s no surprise 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 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 off of the rising moisture and they gather at the base of the cloud, creating the negative charge. It is thought that rising moisture then carries a positive charge to the peak of the cloud. The charge separation within the cloud is what generates an electrical field, the strength of which can be related 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 known as 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 exact same time, but the first one to make contact with the ground is the one that gets the lightning.
The entire process is somewhat 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. A single ampere of current is all it takes to kill a human!
Lightning is a complex phenomenon with many exceptions and variations. 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 over the plumes of smoke and thought that they surely must be photoshopped. Not so!
There’s 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 little charges which become amplified during the chaos of rushing out of a volcano. With every collision of a single particle with another, the charges become increasingly polarized until lightning is inevitable 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 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 normal branching, bolting lightning we’re used to seeing), manifesting as jagged sparks likely as the result of a hefty charge inside the volcano itself.
How Many Different Types of Lightning You will find?
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 separate clouds, and intracloud, which is lightning moving within 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 different types of lightning, and usually have a reddish-orange hue.)
Lightning can be sometimes further defined 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 decay of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, causing a beaded appearance. This happens very quickly and is hard to capture.)
St. Elmo’s Fire This is not really 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 electric charge. It’s made of plasma (ionized air 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 place where there’s a drastic difference in charge between the atmosphere and an object such as the mast of a ship or the steeple of a church. St. Elmo’s Fire is the same thing that occurs in a fluorescent tube- basically a constant spark, glowing blue due to the particular mix of air molecules. It might also choose a purple color.
St. Elmo’s Fire is quite tricky to find accurate videos or images of. Many videos exist which claim to be St. Elmo’s Fire but are actually just static discharge (a frequent occurrence 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 both to blame for the confusion.
If you’re in the water when a storm begins, get out of the water as fast as possible.
Lightning strikes will follow anything that conducts electricity, so stay off your mobile telephone during 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 don’t conduct electricity, so as long as your mobile phone isn’t plugged in to an outlet and you’re not standing outside during the storm using the metallic apparatus held to your face, it’s safe to use it. They do not inexplicably”attract” lightning more than 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 to your security information.
If you’re caught in a thunderstorm and cannot get inside to safety, crouch low to the ground but do not lay flat. Try to maintain as much of your body from touching the ground as you can, since you’re in more danger of being hurt by currents traveling across the floor after a lightning strike than of being spilled 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..
One has only to see an electric storm themselves to comprehend 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 thought to make thunder by the beating of its wings, and lightning is made by glowing snakes that it conveys or directly from its eyes.
Thor is the Norse hammer-wielding god of thunder.
There is a lot more to learn about lightning in all 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 with this unbelievable force with deity.