What is lightning?

Grand Canyon Under Black Sky With Lightning during Daytime

As we enter mid-spring and the weather eventually starts 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 (although not ME, I am definitely not scared of lightning. No sir,) it’s not surprising that cultures all over the world associate lightning with deity. But what precisely is it?

During an electrical storm, the top section of the storm clouds has a positive charge and the lower part has a negative charge. It’s not quite clear how the clouds reach these charges in the first place, but one theory is that different kinds of liquid (vapor, ice and water droplets) collide as they rise and fall inside a cloud. In the crash, electrons are knocked from the moisture and they collect at the base of the cloud, producing 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 generates an electrical field, the strength of which can be linked to the quantity of charge buildup in the cloud.

When the electric charge within the cloud gets quite strong, the atmosphere 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 effort to neutralize the charge. These currents are known as leaders, and they provide a route through the cloud for the lightning to follow. The first (or stepped) leader doesn’t move easily, but jumps in a jagged fashion. Many leaders form at precisely the exact same time, but the first one to make contact with the floor is the one which gets the lightning.

The entire process is somewhat more complex, but there you have the fundamentals 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.

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, then you might have seen lightning over the plumes of smoke and thought that they definitely need to be photoshopped. Not so!

There’s still research being conducted to 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 from a volcano. With every collision of a single 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 strain of polarization.

There’s 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 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 think about a”type” 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-sky (Also called sprites, cloud-to-sky lightning occurs in the upper atmosphere. They lack the hot temperatures of different kinds of lightning, and normally have a reddish-orange hue.)

Lightning can be occasionally 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 corrosion of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, causing a beaded look. 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 noticed during electrical storms. St. Elmo’s Fire (not to be confused with ball lightning as it frequently is) is caused by a gap in electric charge. It’s made from 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 area 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 exactly the identical 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 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). A simple way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire doesn’t look like lightning- rather it emits a continuous glow.

Ball lightning- The most mysterious sort of”lightning”, there’s some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning really exists.

If you’re in the water when a storm starts, get out of the water as quickly as possible.
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 property, even the strongest 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 apparatus held to your face, it’s safe to use it. They don’t strangely”attract” lightning over any other item with metal inside ).
Lightning does actually strike twice (the Empire State building is struck 20-25 times per year), so don’t rely on old adages to 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 maintain as much of your body from touching the floor 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 straight by a bolt. Ten seconds equals two 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 legends and myths about lightning:

The Thunderbird common to North American native cultures is thought to make thunder from the beating of its wings, and lightning is created by glowing snakes it conveys or directly from its eyes.
There’s a lot more to learn about lightning in all its various incarnations. It’s a stark reminder of the unbelievable 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.