Thursday, July 14, 2016


Lightning is a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth's surface. The charged regions within the atmosphere temporarily equalize themselves through a lightning flash, commonly referred to as a strike if it hits an object on the ground. There are three primary types; from a cloud to itself (intra-cloud or IC); from one cloud to another cloud (CC) and finally between a cloud and the ground (CG). Although lightning is always accompanied by the sound of thunder, distant lightning may be seen but be too far away for the thunder to be heard.

Lightning occurs approximately 40–50 times a second worldwide, resulting in nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year.

Many factors affect the frequency, distribution, strength, and physical properties of a "typical" lightning flash to a particular region of the world. These factors include ground elevation, latitude, prevailing wind currents, relative humidity, proximity to warm and cold bodies of water, etc. To a certain degree, the ratio between IC, CC and CG lightning may also vary by season in middle latitudes.

CG lightning is the most studied and best understood of the three types, even though IC and CC are more common. Lightning's relative unpredictability limits a complete explanation of how or why it occurs, even after hundreds of years of scientific investigation. A typical cloud to ground lightning flash culminates in the formation of an electrically conducting plasma channel through the air in excess of 5 km (3 mi) tall, from within the cloud to the ground's surface. The actual discharge is the final stage of a very complex process. A typical thunderstorm has three or more strikes to the Earth per minute at its peak.

Lightning primarily occurs when warm air is mixed with colder air masses resulting in atmospheric disturbances necessary for polarizing the atmosphere. However, it can also occur during dust storms, forest fires, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and even in the cold of winter, where the lightning is known as thundersnow. Hurricanes typically generate some lightning, mainly in the rainbands as much as 160 km (100 mi) from the center.

The science of lightning is called fulminology. The fear of lightning is called astraphobia.

Click to enlarge
Lightning is not distributed evenly around the planet, as seen in the image above.

About 70% of lightning occurs over land in the tropics where atmospheric convection is the greatest. This occurs from both the mixture of warmer and colder air masses, as well as differences in moisture concentrations, and it generally happens at the boundaries between them. The flow of warm ocean currents past drier land masses, such as the Gulf Stream, partially explains the elevated frequency of lightning in the Southeast United States. Because the influence of small or absent land masses in the vast stretches of the world's oceans limits the differences between these variants in the atmosphere, lightning is notably less frequent there than over larger landforms. The North and South Poles are limited in their coverage of thunderstorms and therefore result in areas with the least amount of lightning.

In general, cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning flashes account for only 25% of all total lightning flashes worldwide. Since the base of a thunderstorm is usually negatively charged, this is where most CG lightning originates. This region is typically at the elevation where freezing occurs within the cloud. Freezing, combined with collisions between ice and water, appears to be a critical part of the initial charge development and separation process. During wind-driven collisions, ice crystals tend to develop a positive charge, while a heavier, slushy mixture of ice and water (called graupel) develops a negative charge. Updrafts within a storm cloud separate the lighter ice crystals from the heavier graupel, causing the top region of the cloud to accumulate a positive space charge while the lower level accumulates a negative space charge.

Because the concentrated charge within the cloud must exceed the insulating properties of air and this increases proportionally to the distance between the cloud and the ground, the proportion of CG strikes (versus cloud-to-cloud (CC) or in-cloud (IC) discharges) becomes greater when the cloud is closer to the ground. In the tropics, where the freezing level is generally higher in the atmosphere, only 10% of lightning flashes are CG. At the latitude of Norway (around 60° North latitude), where the freezing elevation is lower, 50% of lightning is CG.

Lightning is usually produced by cumulonimbus clouds, which have bases that are typically 1-2 km (0.6-1.25 miles) above the ground and tops up to 15 km (9.3 mi) in height.

On Earth, the place where lightning occurs most often is near the small village of Kifuka in the mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the elevation is around 975 m (3,200 ft). On average, this region receives 158 lightning strikes per 1 square kilometer (0.39 sq mi) per year. Other lightning hotspots include Catatumbo lightning in Venezuela, Singapore, Teresina in northern Brazil, and "Lightning Alley" in Central Florida.

In order for an electrostatic discharge to occur, two things are necessary: 1) a sufficiently high electric potential between two regions of space must exist; and 2) a high-resistance medium must obstruct the free, unimpeded equalization of the opposite charges.

It is well understood the thunderstorm is able to separate and aggregate charges in certain regions of the cloud, however the exact processes by which this occurs are not fully understood;

The atmosphere provides the electrical insulation, or barrier, that prevents free equalization between charged regions of opposite polarity. This is overcome by "lightning", a complex process referred to as the lightning "flash".

As a thundercloud moves over the surface of the Earth, an equal electric charge, but of opposite polarity, is induced on the Earth's surface underneath the cloud. The induced positive surface charge, when measured against a fixed point, will be small as the thundercloud approaches, increasing as the center of the storm arrives and dropping as the thundercloud passes. The referential value of the induced surface charge could be roughly represented as a bell curve.

The oppositely charged regions create an electric field within the air between them. This electric field varies in relation to the strength of the surface charge on the base of the thundercloud – the greater the accumulated charge, the higher the electrical field.

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