Lightning travels at a similar speed as light, at around 670,000,000 mph. A real stroke of lightning is fairly slower at 275,000 mph. Thunder is a noise that travels at speed of sound which is 760 mph. This is why you see lightning a few seconds before the sound.
What Is Lightning?
Typically, lightning is defined as a type of electrical discharge that usually occurs due to the variance between the storm-carrying clouds and the ground level and can appear as blue in night sky. It can also occur because of an imbalance within multiple clouds. Usually, lighting is induced by variance in several clouds.
As you would probably guess, lightning can be classified into multiple categories. The most popular of the lot would be sheet lighting, which is but a distant bolt known for sparking a massive base of the cloud. You can also find other bolts in the form of rocket lightning or bead lightning.
Facts About Lightning
It Isn’t as Big
You would probably think that lightning assumes a large size. However, contrary to popular notions, the actual width of a lightning strike is fairly small. It is just the same size as a small coin with an approximate diameter of 25 mm. The lightning strike appears significantly big because of its blinding brightness.
You Can Measure Lightning
Yes! Lightning can be measured. All you need to do is set up a radar which will then send electromagnetic pulses. These pules will be reflected by specific artifacts (like anything made of metal). A lightning pulse may travel up to 186,000 miles for every second. The distance is measured by calculating the time elapsed after a pulse is emitted and until the object is reflected.
Catatumbo is a type of Venezuelan lightning that is known for its frequent strikes. On average, Catatumbos have at least a hundred strikes for every hour.
Your plants and trees can be completely decimated by a single strike of lightning. Every time lightning hits a plant or a large tree, it ends up moving up to the bark of the tree. This is also the part that contains water along with sap. With the presence of lightning, this area becomes instantly hot. Next, it almost immediately expands resulting in the bark being completely blasted off. This also causes the wood to split out in some instances.
Every time lightning strikes our soil, especially the ones laden with sand or just pure sand, it assimilates the grains to develop a transparent tubular structure. Popularly known as fulgurites, these are coveted objects for collectors. Scientists too research on fulgurites to investigate and demonstrate the previous instances of such heavy lightning and storms.
How far away is lightning?
One of the easiest ways to calculate the distance of your current location from a lightning strike is the flash-to-bang method. With this method, you will just need to count the total time that traverses between the lightning strike flash and the resounding thunder. Once you have the number, divide the same by five. This final number will inform you about the approximate distance you are from the spot that just experienced a lightning strike.
Safety Tips to Follow During Lightning
While lightning may be scary, you can follow these simple safety tips to stay protected:
- Stay aware of your surroundings and try to check the weather forecasts for impending lightning.
- Always stay home if you know of impending lightning.
- If outside, seek shelter in a closed space immediately.
- Avoid seeking shelter in open spaces like under trees.
- Avoid staying in an open vehicle or any other vehicle.
- Do not go near tall buildings or structures if there’s a lightning strike nearby.
Lightning vs Thunder
All of us are familiar with storms. They usually occur every time the earth’s atmosphere is severely disturbed. While the disturbance may be fairly low and even mild in an area with low pressure. However, if the weather condition is severe, even the smallest cyclones can transform into big and devastating storms. Usually, storms can be categorized into several types depending on their intensity. Popular ones are snow and thunderstorms, though rainstorms and hail too make it to the list.
Thunderstorms are caused by the quick movement of air in an upward direction. Once the air starts moving upward, it starts to lose its inherent heat, leading to compression. The result is small clouds with air currents creating tiny drops of liquid and small bits of ice. These objects collectively clash to establish static energy that eventually leads to bouts of thunderstorms and strikes of lightning.
Unlike thunder, which is more related to sound, lightning is a straight or slanting electrical flash. You probably already know that they are extremely hot assuming a temperature of up to 54,000 F. Usually, you will find lightning striking the tallest objects because it always tries to figure out the quickest way to reach the earth level. In case it is slanting, the primary lightning bolt will move downwards while the return stroke will move right back following the path created by the primary bolt.
Finally, as the air around the lightning starts to expand, it ends up creating a strong form of sound. This sound may be best defined as thunder. Even though the occurrence of lightning and thunder may be simultaneous, we will first witness the lightning because the light is known to have a faster speed when compared to sound.
Unlike lightning, thunder is more of a sound that you hear during massive storms. The process occurs when gases expand midair around the lightning and its sound ranges from less intense rumbles to larger cracks or peals.
Causes of Lightning
Storms might seem like a simple process to us. But in reality, it is far more complex. Storms usually happen because several small bits of raindrops, ice, and snow create a variance and almost a sort of imbalance between the storm clouds and the level of the earth.
Any object at the earth or ground level like plants, forests, and soil get a positive charge, while the storm clouds get a negative charge. Owing to this imbalance, nature attempts to remediate the situation by transferring high voltages of current amid these existing charges.
It goes without mention that lightning is scorching. Even a simple flash has a temperature that is at least five times greater than the surface of the hottest part of the sun. With the heat traveling in the air, the air too starts expanding and vibrating quickly. We are left with a striking flash of lightning.
Lightning vs Sound
You just find a lightning strike across the sky. A couple of seconds after, you hear a resounding thunder. If lightning is coming from the same source as thunder, why do you hear the sound much later? Well, the idea is simple. We see the light first because light travels much faster than sound. It is the fastest thing ever. Since sound only travels at 343 m/s, it takes you a little more while to hear the sound.
It is also worth noting here that sound tends to disintegrate several molecules right within the air. Following this, the sound ends up traveling in multiple directions. So, the more you are away from the location where the lightning struck, the more are you likely to find the sound getting distorted.
To put it simply, if you find the thunder rumbling, you can safely assume that the strike of lightning was much far from your location. However, if you hear a sharp sound of thunder, it indicates that you are near the source of lightning.
Scary Facts About Lightning
Here are some more scary facts about lightning:
It Can Strike Twice
Yes, contrary to common myths, lightning can indeed strike the same spot twice. Some areas, especially at a higher elevation, may even witness thousands of lightning bolts. The Empire State Building for example gets lightning struck at least 20+ times annually.
Lightning channels may be extremely long. Typically, an average channel of lightning can go up to 90 miles.
Lightning Strikes Can Lead to Death
Between 1984 and 2014, at least 50+ people were killed due to lightning strikes in the US.
Lightning Induced Rashes
If you’re struck by a lightning, you will probably get a ghastly red rash. Also known as the Lichtenberg figure, it occurs when an electrical charge ruptures the capillaries under your skin.
Positive Lightning Is the Worst
Contrary to the name, positive lightning bolts are the most popular and also the deadliest form of lightning. It can create at least 300,000 electrical amps and kill practically anyone who gets hit by it.