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How Lightning Works

Lightning is STILL one of the world’s greatest mysteries to mankind, along with tornado formation.  Science has taught us a lot about lightning as we have made new discoveries.  However, there remains much about lightning that we still do not know about.  For example, scientists and photographers recently (within the last decade or so) discovered an additional component of lightning.  Called Sprites, the associates of lightning occur far into the upper reaches our atmosphere.   Wikipedia defines a lightning sprite as “large-scale electrical discharges that occur high above thunderstorm clouds, or cumulonimbus, giving rise to a quite varied range of visual shapes flickering in the night sky. They are triggered by the discharges of positive #lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground”.  It is currently assumed that Sprites happen more frequently with mesoscale convective systems (MCS) that have a positive charge being transferred from the top of a thunderstorm with positive-over-negative charge structure, to altitudes of  10 km or higher.

Lightning strikes ahead of a thunderstorm in Kansas – Photo by Caleb Elliott of Storm Videos LLC

Kansas-storm-with-lightning-strike-wm Lightning | How lightning works

What we do know about lightning is that it is dangerous and amazing.  The origins of lightning begin as a thunderstorm tosses air current up and down.  The currents of air create a friction that is electrically charged inside of the cloud.  As the downward currents carry water vapor and water droplets towards earth, the lower portion of the cloud becomes electrically charged, as well.

Most of that electrical energy is used by the thunderstorm as CC (Cloud-to-cloud) lightning or, as some storm chasers call “anvil crawlers”.   So when does the lightning become a danger to you?  When it connects to the Earth.

How does lightning strike? 

Scientists have learned that #lightning begins with negative charges (-) within a thunderstorm.  When those (-) charges become great enough, the charge begins to make a path, a path of least resistance to positively charged earth.   Since lightning is an electrical phenomenon, the charges or current seeks out conductors of electricity.  This could be anything from trees, grass blades, a rock, or even a wave in the ocean.

A step-leader, which is a “feeler” for the (-) negative charge starts down the path seeking wherever it can to find a (+) positive charge.  Nearing the ground, the step-leader begins to have a reaction to the (+) positive charges on the surface.  The result is a “streamer” reaching up to meet the step-leader to complete the giant electrical circuit.

When the (+) positive streamer and (-) negative step-leader meet, a “channel” is made.  This is when the visible lightning that we see happens as the return stroke violently explodes from the surface into the clouds.

Thunder is nothing more than extremely hot air expanding so fast that it creates a shock wave.  Basically, the bolt of lightning is so hot that the air the bolt travels through explodes away from the bolt faster than the speed of sound.  Our ears perceive this noise as thunder and since a lightning bolt travels from the tops of the storms down to the ground, there are “shock waves” from different altitudes.  The resulting effect is the rumble you hear that accompanies #thunder.

Below is an example of #lightning that I shot at 240fps.  Granted, it was shot on an iPhone, but the net result is still pretty spectacular.  You be the judge.

At the start of the the lightning bolt, you can see the negative charges bouncing around in the upper section of the thunderstorm.  These are the beginning stages of the bolt.

As those (-) negatively charged particles gain strength, they begin to reach out of the cloud as a step-leader seeking the (+) positively charged streamer.  NOTE:  the step-leader lightning branches out across the sky near the storm as there are multiple step-leaders all searching for a streamer.  Which ever step-leader finds and connects to a streamer will be the channel in which the return stroke(s) discharge into the clouds.

As you can see, once the streamer and step-leader connect, the extremely bright flashes can be seen as the #lightning bolt is now discharging up the return stroke.

Unfortunately, I was too far away from this storm to be able to see the #streamer as it reached up form the #ocean surface.  However, I have captured a streamer that was reaching from the top of a water tower but did not connect with the step-leader.

Here is another example of how lightning strikes.  This is the same storm in Florida but a little darker.  This time, as you watch, notice the five return strokes.  This is what causes the flickering effect that lightning has.  I also often wonder if the lightning that comes from higher up in the clouds can actually travel the return stroke from up in the clouds down to the surface?  Plausible? I’m not sure even though this video is very compelling.

Ever wonder how lightning works?

Read this infographic and learn what scientists and meteorologist currently know about how lightning works.
how-lightning-works Lightning | How lightning works
Source:Life’s Little Mysteries


Is there a correlation between  frequency of lightning strikes and tornadogenesis (beginning stages of a tornado formation) or storm severity?

It is of interest to note that the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) has noted a significant increase in lightning strike activity prior to severe weather taking place at the surface.  This is known as a “lightning jump”.

Tornadogenesis theory goes like this:  Air being drawn in to a supercell thunderstorm that is rotating horizontally due to wind shear near the surface of the storm is tilted upwards into a supercell thunderstorm updraft.  This is where the horizontal vortex tilts vertically and becomes stretched, a.k.a Vortex Stretching.  As the vortex is stretched vertically the air begins to spin faster and is drawn inward (the ice skater analogy wherein the ice skater spins faster as he/she brings their arms in closer).  This causes the vortex to spin faster and helps spin up the vortex.  This vortex is then drawn into the storm updraft and as the storm intensifies it has been noted that a “lightning jump” does frequently occur beforehand and is currently believed to be a “fundamental link between lightning activity and tornadogenesis”.  However, there is still much more research that needs to be done to confirm such theories.  As it stands right now, the increased lightning activity is more of a result of increased updraft intensity rather than a cue for tornadogenesis.

Using lightning research projects such as Deep Convective Clouds & Chemistry Expireent (DC3), Thunderstorm Electrification and Lightning EXpirement (TELEX) and the GOES-R Lightnign Mapper, the NSSL continues its work on understanding the formation of lightning and how storms actually produce lightning in the hopes that they will be able to develop improved forecasting methods for severe weather warnings and awareness.

If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to add some information of your own, leave a comment below.  Thanks for visiting.

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