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[FAQ'S About Lighting] [Lightning Glossary] [Lightning Safety Information]
Lightning
 

Lightning the visible discharge of atmospheric electricity that occurs when a region of the atmosphere acquires an electrical charge, or potential difference, sufficient to overcome the resistance of the air.

Lightning is usually associated with cumulonimbus clouds (thunderclouds) but also occurs in nimbostratus clouds, in snowstorms and dust storms, and sometimes in the dust and gases emitted from erupting volcanoes. During a thunderstorm, a lightning flash can occur within a cloud, between clouds, between a cloud and air, or from cloud to ground.

Lightning occurs because regions of net charge are generated by charge-separation processes that produce an electric dipole structure in a cloud. The charges within a thundercloud are distributed between a large net-positive charge in the upper region of the cloud, a large net-negative charge in the lower region, and a small net-positive charge in the lowest part of the cloud. Charges reside on water drops, ice particles, or both. If the surrounding air has a net charge, an air discharge from the cloud may occur.

The flash of cloud-to-ground lightning is initiated by the neutralization of the small net-positive charge in the lowest region of the cloud. A cloud-to-ground flash comprises at least two strokes: a leader stroke and a return stroke. A leader stroke carrying a negative charge passes from cloud to ground. (Occasionally, however, the leader stroke is from ground to cloud--especially with very high structures such as church steeples, multistory buildings, or tall trees.) The leader stroke is not very bright and is often stepped and has many branches extending out from the main channel. As it nears the ground, it induces an opposite charge, concentrated at the point to be struck, and a return stroke carrying a positive charge from ground to cloud is generated through the channel. The two strokes generally meet about 50 m (164 feet) above the ground. At this juncture, the cloud is short-circuited to the ground and a highly luminous return stroke of high current passes through the channel to the cloud.

A typical lightning flash involves a potential difference between cloud and ground of several hundred million volts, with peak currents on the order of 20,000 amperes. Temperatures in the channel are on the order of 30,000 K (50,000° F). The entire process is very rapid; the leader stroke reaches the juncture point or the ground in about 20 milliseconds, and the return stroke reaches the cloud in about 70 microseconds.

The thunder associated with lightning is caused by the rapid heating of air to high temperatures along the whole length of the lightning channel. The air thus heated expands at supersonic speeds, but within a metre or two the shock wave decays into a sound wave, which is then modified by the intervening medium of air and topography. The result is a series of claps and rumbles.

Although lightning strikes are dangerous because of their high-voltage discharges, the tendency of strikes to occur at high points enables lightning rods of conductive metal to draw the strikes and conduct them harmlessly into the ground. By moving indoors or by sheltering in a low, depressed area, such as a ditch, exposed persons can avoid being struck.

Lightning is a transient, high-current electric discharge whose path length is measured in kilometers. The most common source of lightning is the electric charges separated in ordinary thunderstorm clouds (cumulonimbus). Well over half of all lightning discharges occur within the thunderstorm cloud and are called intracloud discharges. The usual cloud-to-ground lightning, sometimes called streaked or forked lightning, has been studied more extensively than other lightning forms because of its practical interest, as the cause of injuries and death, disturbances in power and communicating systems, and the ignition of forest fires, and because lightning channels below cloud level are more easily photographed and studied with optical instruments. Cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-air discharges are less common than intracloud or cloud-to-ground lightning. All discharges other than cloud-to-ground are often lumped together and called cloud discharges.

Lightning is a self-propagating and electrodeless atmospheric discharge that transfers through the induction process the electrical energy of an electrified cloud into electrical charges and current in its ionized and thus conducting channel. Positive and negative leaders are essential components of the lightning. Only when a leader reaches the ground, the ground potential wave (return stroke) affects the lightning process. Natural lightning starts as a bidirectional leader although at different stages of the process unidirectional leader development can occur. Artificially triggered lightning starts on a tall structure or from a rocket with a trailing wire. Most of the lightning energy goes into heat, with smaller amounts transformed into sonic energy (thunder), radiation, and light. Lightning, in its various forms, is known by many names such as the common streak lightning, forked lightning, sheet lightning, heat lightning and the less common air discharge; also, the rare and mysterious ball lightning and rocket lightning. For some detailed explanation of lightning processes, see lightning discharge and related terms.

An abrupt, discontinuous natural electric discharge in the atmosphere. Lightning produces a sound wave that is heard as thunder.

An important effect of world-wide lightning activity is the net transfer of negative charge from the atmosphere to the earth. This fact is of great importance in one problem of atmospheric electricity, the question of the source of the supply current. Existing evidence suggests that lightning discharges occurring sporadically at all times in various parts of the earth, perhaps 100 per second, may be the principal source of negative charge that maintains the earth-ionosphere potential difference of several hundred thousand volts in spite of the steady transfer of charge produced by the air-earth current. However, there also is evidence that point discharge currents may contribute to this more significantly than lightning.
 

How does Lightning form?

Lightning, a flow of electrical current between the earth and storm clouds, occurs as varying charges of positive and negative polarity build up in the atmosphere during a storm. The result is a discharge or current sent rushing toward the earth. As this downward force nears the earth's surface, positive charges rise up to meet it. As the negatively charged stepped leader thrusts toward the ground readying to discharge its energy, its path is erratic. Nearing the earth, positive charges are attracted by it and strain up from roof edges, lighting poles, antennas, etc. When the two opposing charge systems meet, they create a closed circuit. As the path to the ground is completed, a flash is created.

[FAQ'S About Lighting] [Lightning Glossary] [Lightning Safety Information]
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Lightning animated picture.

 

 



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Facts About Lightning!

_____________

Packs between  35,000 to 40,000 amperes of  current.

Can generate temperatures as high as 50,000 degrees Celsius.

Falls somewhere on the earth every second.

Travels as far as 40 miles.

Kills nearly 100 people each year in the U.S. and injures hundreds of others.

Can, and does strike the same place twice.

Causes billions of dollars in property damage each year, many times resulting in fire and total
property loss.
 

 

 

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