The sky is split open by a massive, powerful streak of energy, and seconds later, the very air is ripped apart by the roar of thunder. During storms, lightning occurs when an electrical current flows through a cloud. The way lightning appears can differ, from a single streak to the legendary ball lightning. (Pfeffer 14-17).
Until the 1700s, almost nothing was known about lightning, myths and magic being used to explain the phenomenon. (Franklin’s Forecast). All occurrences of lightning in the United States are detected and mapped by the National Lightning Detection Network. It’s important to know how to stay safe in a lightning storm, as lightning strikes over a thousand people in the United States every year. (HowStuffWorks “How Lightning Works”).
Learning about the science of lightning, how scientists are still learning about it, and ways to keep out of harms way in an electrical storm is not only intriguing, but could also save your life. For the most part, when people see lightning, they wonder how it happens. The process is fascinating, and it all starts with a storm. First of all, when it is raining, the particles of rain, snow, and ice in clouds move around and bump into each other. The constant motion and collision cause an electrical charge to start to build up.
(Education for Geo-Hazards – Lightning Strike! Education for Disaster Risk Reduction). Seeing that there are thousands and thousands of these particles in storm clouds, the charge becomes greater and greater. As the charge increases, it starts to separate, the positive charge (protons) rising to the top of the cloud, the negative charge (electrons) sinking to the bottom of cloud. Now, the negative charge is closer to the ground. When the charge gets strong enough, it starts to repel the electrons in the ground, causing protons to coat the surface of the land. This creates a charge imbalance, which is remedied by a giant electrical spark.
(HowStuffWorks “How Lightning Works”). Since electrons are thousands of times tinier than protons, they move through the air more easily and cover most of the distance. The first stroke of lightning is invisible, made up of the electrons coming down from the air. ( Lightning). This is called a stepped ladder, as it comes down in segments of about 150 feet.
When this stroke comes within about 150 feet of something that is charged positively, a channel of protons, called a streamer, rises up from the ground. (Lightning Facts, Lightning Information, Lightning Videos, Lightning Photos – National Geographic). When the stepped leader and the streamer meet, the electrical current flows faster, causing the flash that we call lightning. (Franklin’s Forecast). Now, the air around the lightning is hot. Specifically, the air around the lightning can get up to temperatures five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
(Lightning Facts, Lightning Information, Lightning Videos, Lightning Photos – National Geographic). The sudden superheating causes the air to expand and vibrate, creating the sound of thunder. Since light travels much faster than sound, you can find out how far away a lightning strike is by counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder. Five seconds equal a mile, but if you hear it sooner, the lightning is very close. (Branley 16-18).
Whether lightning is dangerous or not often depends on what type it is. There are many different kinds of lightning, but some are more common than others. (Pfeffer 15). For example, the most common type of lightning is intracloud lightning. This is a type of lightning that occurs within one cloud.
The lightning, instead of going from the negative end of the cloud to the ground, the lightning jumps from the differently charged areas in one cloud. This type of lightning is also called sheet lightning, as it usually causes the sky to light up blue. (Chaser). Also extremely common is cloud-to-ground lightning, which is the kind of lightning discussed in the last paragraph. (Franklin’s Forecast). Another is ground-to-cloud lightning, which occurs when the stepped leader originates from an object on the ground, usually something very tall, like a skyscraper or tall tower.
(HowStuffWorks “How Lightning Works”). Some less common forms of lightning are anvil crawlers, bolts from the blue, cloud-to-air, and cloud-to-cloud strikes. Anvil crawlers form branching, relatively slow lightning strikes, and often covers the whole sky with its discharge. A bolt from the blue is a lightning strike that occurs far away from the thunderstorm it originates from, traveling horizontally for distances of up to 10 miles before descending to the earth. Cloud-to-air lightning is simply lightning that goes from a cloud and ends in the middle of the sky, not hitting the ground.
Cloud-to-cloud strikes go from one cloud to a completely separate cloud. (Chaser). Lastly, although there are many of types of rare lightning, the type of lightning that still baffles scientists is ball lightning. This type of lightning has never actually been verified with photographic evidence, but many people claim to have seen these balls of energy that seem to defy gravity and physics. (Pfeffer 15) (Lightning Facts, Lightning Information, Lightning Videos, Lightning Photos – National Geographic).
It’s extremely important to know when and where lightning is most likely to occur, lessening your chances of being hit. All lightning that occurs in the United States is picked up and mapped by the National Lightning Detection Network. This organization is made up of computers and magnetic sensors all over the U.S. When lightning strikes, the sensors pick up the huge amount of electrical discharge, and by triangulating the nearest sensors, scientists can figure out where the most severe storm is going on.
They also track lightning over long periods of time, so that meteorologists can track thunderstorms. There are hand-held sensors anyone can buy to track lightning, but no sensor can tell the future, so if using one, be sure to use common sense as well, and check to see if it looks like lightning. On the other hand, there are certain areas where lightning is much more common. In the United States, Florida has the greatest threat, and, as the national weather service says, “The greatest flash density is found in central Florida, where each square kilometer is struck more than ten times each year.” Lightning strikes most often in moist warm areas, and is found least often in the Pacific Northwest.
Scientists now know a lot about lightning, when just a few hundred years ago they knew nothing. In early cultures, most people believed that lightning was the wrath of some angry god directed at them. (Branley). Until the 1700s, nobody really knew what lightning was. It wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin tied a key to a kite string and went riding through a thunderstorm that anyone realized what lightning is. (Franklin’s Forcast).
Franklin had been studying electricity for a while, and deduced from his kite experiment that lightning was simply an electric current. (NWS Lightning Safety Myths.). It was in the 1970s that lightning detection networks started to be set up by scientists. Since they started to learn more and more about lightning, they have classified it as plasma, the fourth state of matter. (Franklin’s Forecast).
However, lightning is still dangerous, so stay out of its way. Knowing what to do if caught out in a lightning storm could quite possibly save lives. The most important thing to do in a storm is to get out of and away from large bodies of water, like swimming pools or the ocean. Next, get in a shelter. The best place to get is a substantial building with a ceiling and four walls. A tent wouldn’t provide much safety.
A car, however, would provide good shelter.. In both the building and the car, there will most likely be conductive things, such as metal and wiring, that are dangerous. If you are in a building, stay away from anything, such as computers, telephones, radios, or overhead lights, that have wiring in them. Also stay away from sinks and showers, as water is extremely conductive.
If in a car, lean away from the doors and do not touch the ignition, steering wheel, or radio. If, perhaps, you are stuck outside with no way to get to shelter, make sure you make yourself as small as possible. However, you want as little of your body to touch the ground as possible, so do not lay flat on the ground. In a worst case scenario, if someone is hit by lightning, the most important thing to do is call 9-1-1 immediately, as most lightning victims die of cardiac arrest. Preform CPR on the victim, there will be no lingering charge in the victim’s body. Following the steps are extremely important, and could save people’s lives.
(Education for Geo-Hazards – Lightning Strike! Education for Disaster Risk Reduction), (NWS Lightning Safety AMS Recommendations), (HowStuffWorks “How Lightning Works). According to the American Meteorological Society Website, “Lightning has been the second greatest cause of storm-related deaths (after floods) in the United States during the past 40 years.” People underestimate lightning, but it is important to remember that lightning doesn’t just look scary, but is extremely dangerous. Works Cited Chaser/Photographer, DAN ROBINSONStorm. “Lightning Types and Classifications : Storm Highway Weather Library.
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