Lighting is an amazing natural phenomenon. Lots of people hold different views about where it comes from and how it chooses where to strike. Thanks to science, the answers to all the questions you might have about lighting can be answered. Read on to find out all about this interesting weather occurrence—what it is, how it looks, and when it occurs. Once you have gone through the information, you can also share this article with your friends to let them know how lightning is made. Help them to understand the fascinating facts about the weather!
How Does Lightning Look
If you have ever been through a thunderstorm, it’s more than likely that you are familiar with what lighting looks like. Most lightning appears as white-yellow bolts of light coming down from the sky to the Earth. Sometimes, this powerful flash of light can also appear colorless or have tinges of blue or violets. It depends a lot on the background in the area where the lightning is striking.
Red Sprites of Lightning
Besides the more common white-colored bolts of lightning, you may have come across red sprites during a storm. Lightning sprites, also known as sprites or red sprites, are formed from electric charges happening at a very large scale. This phenomenon usually occurs far above the clouds of a thunderstorm, and the main trigger is positive lightning being discharged between the lower thunderclouds and the ground below.
Red sprites are not very easy to see. If you are far away from the actual thunderstorm and watching it at night in the absence of much light pollution, you may be able to catch a glimpse of them. Lightning sprites usually appear as a range of red visual shapes flickering in the sky. The flickers typically only last a fraction of a second.
Conditions Needed for Lightning to Occur
Lightning itself is a spark discharge in the atmosphere or between the Earth’s surface and its atmosphere. This discharge is a natural display of electrostatics, and there are specific conditions that are a requirement for lightning to occur.
Before lightning can form and strike, there must be a separation of positive and negative charges in the thundercloud. This is known as polarization and usually occurs with the tops of the clouds forming a primarily positive region, while the bottoms form a negative region. Once this has occurred, it creates an intense electrostatic field in the atmosphere.
You may be wondering what causes the polarization of the different parts of the clouds in the first place. There are a few possible mechanisms for this. Ionization or the formation of electric charges in the clouds can be caused by cosmic rays that ionize air molecules. Cosmic rays are high-energy particles from outside the solar system, and one example of these is protons. After the atoms are ionized, separation of charges occurs, which is important for lightning production.
Inside a cloud, there are millions of ice particles and suspended water droplets colliding with each other in a random manner. When clusters of water droplets join the cloud from groundwater evaporation, these collide with droplets already in the cloud. The result of this is the ripping off of electrons from the rising water droplets.
Polarization of a storm cloud may also occur during freezing. At higher altitudes, rising droplets of water start to freeze and cluster together with the outer portion of the clouds being become positive and the inner portion becoming negative. Air currents moving in the clouds rip the droplets apart, and the negative portions move towards the bottom of the cloud.
Once there are positive and negative charges in the clouds, this polarization is the most essential condition for lightning to occur, as you have learned. As the negatively charged region at the bottom of the clouds continues to build up, a positive charge is induced in the ground below. This occurrence creates a voltage or potential difference in the space between the clouds and the ground.
Above a certain voltage point, the air in the cloud-ground space becomes a ready conductor of electricity. A channel is formed that allows electrons to move up and down in this space. The channel is made up of 50- 100m section, which gives it its alternative name of a “stepped ladder.” As the ladder extends towards the ground, it is met by a positive fire of charge from the grounds, which completes the channel.
When the channel of conductivity between the ground and the cloud is complete, lightning strikes. Positive charges can flow from the ground, and negative ones can flow done from the clouds.
How Does Lightning “Know” Where to Discharge or Strike?
Lightning strikes very quickly from the clouds to the ground, so you may wonder how this bolt of light decides where and when to strike. The stepped ladder of negative charge explained in the previous section moves towards the ground and attracts positive charge from the ground. More often than not, this can come from the tallest objects in an area such as buildings, trees, homes, and even telephone poles.
Although the stepped ladder from the clouds advances very fast for the human eye to completely follow, it is a gradual descent. Once the ground item has sent forth a positive streamer to connect the path, lightning occurs. There may even be several bolts of lightning along the same path, which appears as a flicker.
There are flashes of lightning occurring all over the world at any given time. These are monitored by a global network known as the World Wide Lightning Location Network or WWLLN. The data collected by this group of scientists is shared across the network in real-time.
Stay Safe in a Thunderstorm
Now that you know what lightning is and how it strikes, you can take the necessary steps to keep yourself and your family safe during a thunderstorm. Here are some of the things you can do:
- Stay indoors and away from windows and doors.
- Reduce the use of electric devices such as corded telephones and computers.
- Avoid faucets, baths, and sinks.
Lightning is a powerful natural display of electricity in nature. Share this overview with your friends and family to help them better understand how lightning forms.