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Electricity and the Science of Lightning

When dark clouds roll in and the wind starts to blow, it's likely that a thunderstorm is brewing on the horizon. Storms usually have loud claps of thunder to go along with flashes of lightning that streak to the ground. The science of lightning explains how and why these electric currents form. While it can be fascinating to study thunderstorms and lightning, it's also important to remember to stay safe during storms.

What is Lightning?

Lightning is an electrical current that starts in clouds due to differences in electrical charges between parts of the clouds. There are different types of lightning, including intra-cloud lightning that happens completely inside one cloud. Intra-cloud lightning is the most common type of lightning that happens. When you see intra-cloud lightning, it usually lights up the whole sky in a big sheet of brightness. Cloud-to-cloud lightning happens between two clouds in the sky, but it doesn't come down to the ground. Cloud-to-ground lightning is the type of lightning bolt that happens between a cloud and the ground.

What Causes Lightning?

In a thunderstorm, clouds form as moisture rises in the atmosphere. Clouds in the sky often hold millions of tiny water droplets. These water droplets move around inside clouds. The moving water droplets bump into each other, causing electrical charges to form inside clouds. The tops of clouds will have colder temperatures and a positive charge, and the bottoms of clouds will have warmer temperatures and a negative charge. These differences in temperature and electrical charges create eventually affect the surface of the Earth, too, causing it to have a positive charge. When this happens, the opposite charges want to connect to cancel each other out, which creates a channel through the air and a spark. The spark is so hot that it heats the air and makes a shock wave. After the light is gone, the air crashes together, making the sound of thunder.

Lightning Safety

Lightning can cause serious injuries and even death. Anytime you are outside and you can hear thunder, you are in danger from lightning. You can figure out how far a thunderstorm is from you by counting the seconds between a flash of lightning and the boom of thunder that follows it. Divide the number of seconds by five, and this tells you how many miles away the storm is from you. For example, if you count five seconds between lightning and thunder, the storm is one mile away.

The safest place during a thunderstorm is in a building, like a house or a school. During a thunderstorm, do not use electrical equipment such as a computer or a corded telephone. Stay away from water in faucets, bathtubs, and sinks. Do not go near concrete floors and walls, windows, doors, and porches. You should stay inside for at least 30 minutes after a thunderstorm ends to make sure that all lightning is completely gone.

Lightning Facts

  • An average of 51 people are killed each year in the United States by lightning.
  • One bolt of lightning contains one billion volts of electricity.
  • More than half of lightning deaths happen after a storm has already passed.
  • Lightning paths between clouds and the ground are about as wide as a thumb.
  • Often, lightning flashes have forks, which means that the lightning connects with the ground at more than one point.
  • Because water conducts electricity so well, swimming is very dangerous during a thunderstorm.
  • An open shelter such as a park pavilion can't protect people from lightning.
  • Standing under a tree during a thunderstorm is very dangerous because a tree's height may attract lightning.
  • The temperature of a lightning bolt is about 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Wearing rubber-soled shoes won't protect you from lightning.

Lightning Experiments

Lightning is an extreme form of static electricity. To learn more about this natural phenomena, try different activities and experiments that will help you see how static electricity happens. When you create static electricity in a science experiment, it won't hurt you the way lightning can hurt people. By understanding static electricity, you can get a better idea of what happens up in clouds before lightning zips down to the ground.

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