How Lightning Works?

01.04.2015 |

Episode #9 of the course “Science questions everyone should know how to answer”

Worldwide, it’s estimated that lightning occurs 50-100 times every single second. It’s one of the greatest visual displays in our world, yet despite its awe-inspiring power, scientists are still learning and discovering new things about lightning.

Often seen flashing between storm clouds, these bursts of light are pure electricity. The main point of contention surrounding lightning is what exactly causes the electricity to be released from the clouds. However, it is generally understood and agreed upon that lightning occurs in the meeting of updrafts and downdrafts of thunderstorms. As storm clouds grow bigger, massive groups of positively charged particles, called protons, are moving to the top of the cloud, and negatively charged particles, called electrons, are moving toward the bottom. Once they get big enough, these massive groups cause lightning. Most lightning actually exists within the cloud itself. When the lightning does escape from the cloud, it lasts only a fraction of a second but contains hundreds of millions of volts of power. Although lightning looks like one single stroke, it is actually a strike to the ground as well as a series of return strokes back into the cloud.

Lightning strikes can reach temperatures of 50,000ºF (27,760ºC). This intense heat is the reason for thunder. Excessive pressure within the lightning path expands at supersonic rates, leading to the loud boom we hear. The greatest frequencies of lightning are in Central Africa, the Himalayas, and South America. Within the United States, lightning leads to over 100 deaths every year—more than hurricanes or tornados.


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