Anatomy of Lightning

Weather Facts with Nicole Phillips

Lightning is one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena!

Lightning is very common during summer months and with a temperature that’s 5 times hotter than the sun, it can travel up to 200,000 mph from the cloud to the ground in a matter of seconds.

It can strike anywhere in the world roughly 50-100 times a second, and strikes the United States roughly 25 million times a year.

So how does this work and how can we see this if it is moving so fast?

It starts with the precipitation in a thunderstorm!

As the thunderstorm grows, the main charging area occurs where the air moves upward rapidly, and temperatures range from 5 to -13 degrees.

 It is here that the temperature plus the rapidly moving air produces super cooled cloud droplets, ice crystals and graupel, or soft hail.

 As the ice crystals and super cooled air move upward within the updraft, the graupel begins to fall.

The differences in the movement of precipitation causes a collision to occur and the ice crystals become positively charged, while the graupel is then negatively charged.

The updraft carries the positively charged ice crystals to the top of the storm and the negatively charged graupel falls to the lower part of the storm.

This makes the top of a thunderstorm tend to be positively charged and the middle and bottom part of a storm tend to be negatively charged.

From here the electrons begin to zig-zag down, this is called a stepped leader.

 As the leader nears the ground it draws a positive charge upward. The stepped leader and the positive charge merge and an electrical current begins to flow. The return stroke, which is the part of lightning that we see, forms and travels around 60,000 miles per second.

There are many types of lighting but the most common that we typically see are intra-cloud and cloud to ground.

This process may repeat itself several times causing it to flicker. The cool thing is that it all happens in less than a second.

So, the next time you see lighting, stay inside.

Featured image credit to “Lightning Strike” by Trey Walker Studio.

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