Lightning: Beautiful, Dangerous and Phenomenal
Although we mostly consider lightning a nuisance, it is one of the greatest phenomena in all of nature. Besides being beautiful and dangerous, it is a marvel of physics.
Lightning can strike from 10 miles away. At any given minute there are more than 1,000 thunderstorms happening on earth with more than 6,000 flashes of lightning. The air heated by lightning is 54,000 degrees: five times hotter than the sun. So it is a great idea to avoid lightning! Estimate how close the lightning is by counting the seconds from when you see the flash. Every five seconds equals one mile. If you count ten seconds from the flash the lightning is two miles away: that is NOT a safe distance! As one weatherman in Oklahoma often says, “It seems as though nature is always trying to kill us.” The surface of our planet is unstable and dangerous. Luckily, we easily forget that because the rest of the time it is tranquil and beautiful.
Thunderstorms, as well as dust storms and volcanic clouds, have wind drafts, drawing down ice from above. When liquid and ice collide they create large electrical fields, separating the charges (atoms). This allows negative charges to accumulate near the base of thunderheads. Like charges repel, so negative charges from the ground are pushed down away from the surface of the ground by the negative charges of the thunderheads, leaving net positive charges. Opposite charges attract. The positive charges from the surface of the ground are attracted to the negative charges in the cloud. Negative charges are a thousand times smaller than positive charges, so they travel down from the clouds much faster, creating an invisible path that is like a crooked ladder and is called a stepped leader.
At the point where the negative and positive charges connect, the negative charges from the cloud start rushing down the path, creating the flash. The flash we see is light travelling up the stepped leader created by the negative charges rushing down. The thunder is air displaced by the heat. Since light travels faster than sound, we can see the lighting before we hear the thunder.
Safety: do not lie down on the ground in a thunderstorm and do avoid the highest trees and structures. Being inside is safest but not totally safe. Cars but not convertibles are safe, so are cell phones and cordless phones. Inside of buildings avoid water (showers, baths, hand washing) and electrical appliances. Surge protectors are not always effective. Unplug computers and anything else using electricity and watch for sparks and fires.
Yes, lighting can strike in the same place twice, three times, even more.
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Dr. Losoncy, Ph.D., is the CEO of Clean Up America, Inc., a company that markets waterless sanitation systems, including the South African Enviroloo. He writes about environmental and business management issues and does training and consulting. He is also a mental health professional, licensed as a marriage/family therapist. He brings communication and psychological perspectives to bear on business practices.