The "Shocking" Secrets of Lightning

Close lightning strike
Carrie Curtis

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If you’ve ever been close to a lightning strike, you know just how powerful a stroke of lightning is.

With temperatures five times hotter than the surface of the Sun and enough electricity to briefly power a city, one of Zeus’s thunderous bolts is clearly something beneath which you don’t want to find yourself.

  • Surprisingly, only about 10 to 20 percent of all lightning within a storm is the lightning that we see. In fact, the vast majority occurs within the storm cloud rather than between the cloud and the ground. 

lightning facts and information

Above photos show lightning during a severe thunderstorm over Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on June 24, 2013. Credit: Matthew Cappucci.

Lightning is Mother Nature’s natural balancing act between charged objects. In this case, friction between raindrops, ice crystals, and other cloud-borne particles results in a negative charge building up within the base of the cloud as “outer-shell” electrons find their way to this region. As the charge grows in the cloud, it begins to become nearly too much for the cloud to handle; a bolt of lightning flashes between the cloud—negative—and the ground—positive by comparison—as a means to equalize and balance the opposite charges.

Every time lightning strikes, hundreds of millions of volts (a measure of the difference in charges between two objects) and nearly 20,000 amperes (a measure of the quantity of current flowing through a lightning bolt, exerting energy dependent on the voltage) course through the pulsating vein of power.

The “flickering” appearance of lighting is due in part to the sheer quantity of raw power being exerted through it; so much electricity passes through a bolt of lightning that multiple “trips” are required in order for all of this power to be exchanged successfully.

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An instance of ground-to-cloud, or “upward” lightning during a severe thunderstorm over Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on June 24, 2013. Credit: Matthew Cappucci.

  • A common misconception of lightning is that it travels downward from the base of a cloud, with its force being recognized once it reaches the ground. In reality, however, such is not the case. It travels both ways. The downward-reaching branch is met by an skyward-bound “upward streamer.” Once these two segments of the bolt meet, a path has been formed for the incredible power of a lightning strike to be achieved. It can be thought of in essence as a microcosm of the Transcontinental Railroad: Crews from both coasts worked in building track to eventually meet in the middle, at which point thousands of passengers were able to move across the length of track spanning the nation. In this way, a lightning bolt is analogous to a “railroad for electrons.”

Lightning during a severe thunderstorm over Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on September 1, 2013. Credit: Matthew Cappucci.

But not all lightning bolts are quite as simple; oftentimes, one lightning bolt can trigger a series of consequent electrical disturbances that ripple across all levels of the atmosphere.

  • “Superbolts,” which seem a myth coming from ancient folklore and legends, are a legitimate phenomenon regarded as one of the most dangerous types of all lightning. A “superbolt” describes an extreme bolt of electricity emanating from the positively charged top of the cloud, harnessing three to as much as 100 times the power of an ordinary lightning bolt.

What makes these bolts so dangerous, however, is their tendency to strike upward of 10 miles away from a thunderstorm. These so-called “bolts from the blue” have been known to strike on perfectly sunny days featuring crystal-clear skies, with little more than the barely audible rumble from a distant thunderhead. The power of these bolts has sparked dozens of forest fires that oftentimes remain unextinguished by rains that fall too far away to be of any assistance. Superbolts are known for their remarkable power. It should come as no surprise that a superbolt once threw a 600-pound church belfry several hundred yards in Michigan. While statistically less than one out of every 100,000 lightning strikes is from a “superbolt,” their effects can be startling.

On May 21, 2012, residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, awoke to about 15 seconds of earthquake-like shaking, intense thunder, and resounding booms shortly after 3:30 A.M. The National Weather Service later identified the culprit as a “superbolt,” which created what some referred to as a “thunderquake” strong enough to set off car alarms within a half-mile radius of the location of the strike. One eyewitness told local news media that their bed was shifted 4 feet due to the shaking associated with the bolt.

A red sprite photographed above a severe thunderstorm by NASA scientists aboard the International Space Station.

  • The same storms that produce superbolts frequently have enough energy to produce other types of lightning as well; red sprites and blue jets both form in the region miles above a severe thunderstorm, close to space, while ball lightning is regarded by scientists as one of the most curious forms of lightning to date.

 A remarkable 'blue jet,' captured by Thijs Bors is the Northern Territory, Australia.

A ‘giant blue jet’ captured by Thijs Bors in Australia’s Northern Territory during a vigorous thunderstorm.

One of the only known photographs of ball lightning in existence, snapped in Nagono, Japan in 1988; photographer unknown.

So, the next time you find yourself faced by a thunderstorm, perhaps take a moment to watch the show; after all, it’s like Mother Nature’s way of treating us to her own Independence Day fireworks display.

Authored by Matthew Cappucci.

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to "Weather Whispers" by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather--from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these blog posts. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

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Matt, Those cgs are two of

Matt,

Those cgs are two of the best I've seen on the net. Good luck with your endeavor.

You hear stories of people

You hear stories of people who are hit several times by lightning over the course of a life. What's with that?

Matthew's explanations and

Matthew's explanations and the photographs are so interesting, he is an engaging writer.  I have learned so much and am a big fan of his work.

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