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Lightning Facts

Lightning is a form of electricity. It happens when the negative and positive charges of electricity in clouds get together.

This happens when the ice and water particles in a cloud collide with each other. The negative atoms on the bottom of the cloud go looking for the positive atoms on the top of the cloud.

When they get together…BOOM!

When a cloud is very densely packed they’re often referred to as a thundercloud.

When the upper surface of the cloud drops to the ground, the electrical charge below is neutralized and released. The cloud continues to form and then breaks into pieces.

The collision happens at very high altitudes where electrons and other particles move at nearly the speed of light.

What is Lightning

A type of electrical discharge that occurs in thunderstorms and lightning storms. Lightning is as much a part of nature as lightning storms.

Lightning Facts for Kids

  • Lighting kills about 2,000 people every year.
  • There are about 240,000 Lightning strikes the ground every year
  • It is estimated that a bolt can contain up to one billion volts
  • The average duration for a bolt of lightning is about 30 microseconds
  • 100 strike Earth’s surface every single second
  • If you hear thunder, it a good chance that lightning is nearby.
  • Lightning is HOT! A flash of lightning has a temperature of about 40,000 degrees F. That’s hotter than the surface of the sun!

How Does Lightning Occur

Lightning is sometimes referred to as a flash of lightning or simply “lightning.”

There are several different kinds of lightning. Strong and rapid short-duration flashes can occur at frequencies that are high enough to be heard, seen, and detected at appreciable distances. The flashes are followed by brief periods of turbulent discharges and losses of electricity.

Strong but brief durations of significant ionization may occur, and in some areas on the ground large electrical storms and hot spots with white and green lightning have been reported.

Unusually, the flash itself has been known to travel and interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The Earth’s magnetic field is a flux of particles (primarily electrons) that surround our planet and move with a velocity that varies from a few meters a second in the core of the Earth’s core up to hundreds of meters a second at the edge of the core.

These particles (magnetic field lines) pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, which carries electric currents and also prevents their existence.

Aren’t clouds made of water and ice droplets?

Yes, they are, but the electricity produced in a cloud-only happens when the cold and hot winds blowing the clouds mix together to make the air unstable (stormy).

That is why lightning only happens during storms.

Different types of lightning

There are several different types of lightning:

CLOUD TO GROUND LIGHTNING: Cloud to ground lightning is the most dangerous type of lightning because the negative charges on the bottom of the clouds reach out to the positive charges on the ground instead of on the tops of the clouds.

Cloud to ground lightning finds the positive charges it is looking for in trees, water, tall buildings, and even people. Only 25% to 30% of all lightning is cloud to ground lightning.

The stepped leader (the bomb and the radio wave) delivers a high voltage electromagnetic wave to a conductor at ground level. Because the conductors are high resistance and conductivity, they are responsible for the high voltage that passes through the intervening ground.

This high voltage electrical energy is partially ionized by the atmospheric oxygen in the atmosphere, which induces a current within a conductor in a contact plate. This increased current decreases the resistance, causing a resistance at the electrode contact.

As this resistance decreases, it produces a greater voltage across the conductor. This voltage increases again when the conductor is energized, thus completing a ‘circuit’. This complete transmission of energy is most typically encountered at ground level.

It is sometimes termed ‘cloud to ground’ lightning.

CG lightning occurs when there is a loss of static electricity on one side of the conducting pathway and again on the other.

INTRA-CLOUD LIGHTNING: Intra-cloud lightning is the most common type of lightning. This is the lightning that happens within a single cloud. This type of lighting looks like someone is turning a light switch on and off in a room. Flat or sheet lighting are other names for intra-cloud lightning.

Intra-cloud lightning is produced by the storm clouds as they deliver rain or other rain-maker storms. It comes in different colors and shapes. its lightning that is electrically generated, not from a cloud.

It is produced from thunderstorms. Most intra-cloud lightning strikes are in the form of a cloud/satellite lightning strike. Cloud lightning refers to strikes of lightning within the clouds, all other types of lightning are more accurately referred to as bolts, flashes, or sparks.

INTER-CLOUD LIGHTNING: This is lightning that takes place between two or more different clouds. The negative charges from one cloud reach out to the positive charges of another cloud. This does not happen very often.

Each cloud has an electric current, and when it “discharges” the current through the air they cause lightning. The exact shape of the path of the lightning, and the angle it charges up at depends on what shape the object is and how fast it is traveling.

These three actions are called “leaping,” “huffing,” and “bursting.”

FORKED LIGHTNING: Forked lightning is the scary-looking lightning we see during bad storms. It has one long streak with lots of forks or fingers along each side of the main streak. Forked lighting can go from cloud to cloud or from the clouds to the ground.

How are lightning and thunder related?

Thunder is the sound lightning makes. The sound is delayed; meaning it doesn’t happen at the same time.

But did you know you can tell how far away a storm is by counting the number of seconds it takes to hear thunder after seeing lightning?

Here’s how:

Count the number of seconds it takes for it to thunder after you see a streak of lightning. Divide that number by 5.

The answer is how far the storm is from you in miles.

EXAMPLE: If you can count to 15 after you see the lightning before it thunders, the storm is 3 miles away from you. (15 divided by 5 is 3) If you can only count to 3, the storm is only 6 tenths of a mile from you. (3 divided by 5 is .6).

Be safe in a Storm

If it is storming outside or if you see lightning, it is best to stay inside. You must also remember to:

  • Never go in or near the water during a storm
  • Do not take cover under a tree if you are caught outside in a storm
  • Do not take cover under a metal roof if you are caught outside in a storm
  • Lightning is very dangerous!

 If you see lightning, immediately run to a shelter and stay there until the storm passes.

If you are standing under a strong storm, do not lean against anything to keep the wind from blowing you over.

You must be vigilant against the wind and keep your arms at your sides. Be sure to get inside a storm shelter if you can.

You are better off indoors during a storm.