Lightning striking Atlanta, United States

Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge (spark) accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms.[1] From this discharge of atmospheric electricity, a leader of a bolt of lightning can travel at speeds of 220,000 km/h (140,000 mph), and can reach temperatures approaching 30,000 °C (54,000 °F), hot enough to fuse silica sand into glass channels known as fulgurites, which are normally hollow and can extend some distance into the ground.[2][3] There are some 16 million lightning storms in the world every year.[4] Lightning causes ionisation in the air through which it travels, leading to the formation of nitric oxide and ultimately, nitric acid, of benefit to plant life below.

Lightning can also occur within the ash clouds from volcanic eruptions,[5] or can be caused by violent forest fires which generate sufficient dust to create a static charge.[1][6]

How lightning initially forms is still a matter of debate.[7] Scientists have studied root causes ranging from atmospheric perturbations (wind, humidity, friction, and atmospheric pressure) to the impact of solar wind and accumulation of charged solar particles.[4] Ice inside a cloud is thought to be a key element in lightning development, and may cause a forcible separation of positive and negative charges within the cloud, thus assisting in the formation of lightning.[4]

The irrational fear of lightning (and thunder) is astraphobia. The study or science of lightning is called fulminology, and someone who studies lightning is referred to as a fulminologist.[8]

3-second video of a lightning strike, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, United States.


History of lightning research

Lightning strikes the Eiffel Tower, France in 1902.
Lightning photographed by William N. Jennings, c. 1882

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) endeavored to test the theory that sparks shared some similarity with lightning by using a spire which was being erected in Philadelphia, United States. While waiting for completion of the spire, he got the idea to use a flying object such as a kite. During the next thunderstorm, which was in June 1752, it was reported that he raised a kite. He was accompanied by his son as an assistant. On his end of the string he attached a key, and he tied it to a post with a silk thread. As time passed, Franklin noticed the loose fibers on the string stretching out; he then brought his hand close to the key and a spark jumped the gap. The rain which had fallen during the storm had soaked the line and made it conductive.[9]

Franklin was not the first to perform the kite experiment. Thomas-François Dalibard and De Lors conducted it at Marly-la-Ville in France, a few weeks before Franklin's experiment.[10][11] In his autobiography (written 1771–1788, first published 1790), Franklin clearly states that he performed this experiment after those in France, which occurred weeks before his own experiment, without his prior knowledge as of 1752.[12]

As news of the experiment and its particulars spread, others attempted to replicate it. However, experiments involving lightning are always risky and frequently fatal. One of the most well-known deaths during the spate of Franklin imitators was that of Professor Georg Richmann of Saint Petersburg, Russia. He created a set-up similar to Franklin's, and was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder. He ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. According to reports, while the experiment was under way, ball lightning appeared and collided with Richmann's head, killing him.[13][14]

Although experiments from the time of Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning was a discharge of static electricity, there was little improvement in theoretical understanding of lightning (in particular how it was generated) for more than 150 years. The impetus for new research came from the field of power engineering: as power transmission lines came into service, engineers needed to know much more about lightning in order to adequately protect lines and equipment. In 1900, Nikola Tesla generated artificial lightning by using a large Tesla coil, enabling the generation of enormously high voltages sufficient to create lightning.


World map showing frequency of lightning strikes, in flashes per square kilometer (km²) per year (equal-area projection). Lightning strikes most frequently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Combined 1995–2003 data from the Optical Transient Detector and 1998–2003 data from the Lightning Imaging Sensor.

Lightning can occur with both positive and negative polarity. An average bolt of negative lightning carries an electric current of 30,000 amperes (30 kA), and transfers fifteen coulombs of electric charge and 500 megajoules of energy. Large bolts of lightning can carry up to 120 kA and 350 coulombs.[15] An average bolt of positive lightning carries an electric current of about 300 kA — about 10 times that of negative lightning. [16]

The voltage involved for both is proportional to the length of the bolt. However, lightning leader development is not just a matter of the electrical breakdown of air, which occurs at a voltage gradient of about 1 megavolts per metre (MV/m). The ambient electric fields required for lightning leader propagation can be one or two orders of magnitude (10−2) less than the electrical breakdown strength. The potential ("voltage") gradient inside a well-developed return-stroke channel is on the order of hundreds of volts per metre (V/m) due to intense channel ionization, resulting in a true power output on the order of one megawatt per meter (MW/m) for a vigorous return stroke current of 100 kA.[17] The average peak power output of a single lightning stroke is about one trillion watts — one terawatt (1012 W), and the stroke lasts for about 30 millionths of a second — 30 microseconds.[18]

Lightning rapidly heats the air in its immediate vicinity to about 20,000 °C (36,000 °F) — about three times the temperature of the surface of the Sun. The sudden heating effect and the expansion of heated air gives rise to a supersonic shock wave in the surrounding clear air. It is this shock wave, once it decays to an acoustic wave, that is heard as thunder.[18]

The return stroke of a lightning bolt follows a charge channel about a centimetre (0.4 in) wide.[citation needed]

Different locations have different potentials and currents for an average lightning strike. In the United States, for example, Florida experiences the largest number of recorded strikes in a given period during the summer season ,[citation needed] has very sandy soils in some areas, and electrically conductive water-saturated soils in others.[citation needed] As much of Florida lies on a peninsula, it is bordered by the ocean on three sides. The result is the daily development of sea and lake breeze boundaries that collide and produce thunderstorms.[citation needed]

NASA scientists have found that electromagnetic radiation created by lightning in clouds only a few miles high can create a safe zone in the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the earth. This zone, known as the "Van Allen Belt slot", may be a safe haven for satellites in middle Earth orbits (MEOs), protecting them from the Sun's intense radiation.[19][20][21]


Positive lightning (a rarer form of lightning that originates from positively charged regions of the thundercloud) does not generally fit the preceding pattern.

Cloud particle collision hypothesis

View of lightning from an airplane flying above a system

According to this cloud particle charging hypothesis, charges are separated when ice crystals rebound off graupel. Charge separation appears to require strong updrafts which carry water droplets upward, supercooling them to between -10 and -40 °C. These water droplets collide with ice crystals to form a soft ice-water mixture called graupel. Collisions between ice crystals and graupel pellets usually results in positive charge being transferred to the ice crystals, and negative charge to the graupel. Updrafts drive the less heavy ice crystals upwards, causing the cloud top to accumulate increasing positive charge. Gravity causes the heavier negatively charged graupel to fall toward the middle and lower portions of the cloud, building up an increasing negative charge. Charge separation and accumulation continue until the electrical potential becomes sufficient to initiate a lightning discharge, which occurs when the distribution of positive and negative charges forms a sufficiently strong electric field.[18]

Polarization mechanism hypothesis

The mechanism by which charge separation happens is still the subject of research. Another hypothesis is the polarization mechanism, which has two components:[22]

  1. Falling droplets of ice and rain become electrically polarized as they fall through the Earth's natural electric field;
  2. Colliding/rebounding cloud particles become oppositely charged.

There are several hypotheses for the origin of charge separation.[23][24][25]

Lightning initiation

Even assuming an electric field has been established, the mechanism by which the lightning discharge begins is not well known. Electric field measurements in thunderclouds are typically not large enough to directly initiate a discharge.[26] Many hypotheses have been proposed, ranging from including runaway breakdown to locally enhanced electric fields near elongated water droplets or ice crystals.[27] Percolation theory, especially for the case of biased percolation, describe random connectivity phenomena, which produce an evolution of connected structures similar to that of lightning strikes.

Leader formation and the return stroke

Illustration of a negative streamer (blue) meeting a positive counterpart (red) and the return stroke. Click to watch the animation.

As a thundercloud moves over the surface of the Earth, an electric charge equal to but opposite the charge of the base of the thundercloud is induced in the Earth below the cloud. The induced ground charge follows the movement of the cloud, remaining underneath it.

An initial bipolar discharge, or path of ionized air, starts from a negatively charged region of mixed water and ice in the thundercloud. Discharge ionized channels are known as leaders. The positive and negative charged leaders, generally a "stepped leader", proceed in opposite directions. The negatively-charged one proceeds downward in a number of quick jumps (steps). 90 percent of the leaders exceed 45 m (148 ft) in length, with most in the order of 50 to 100 m (164 to 492 feet).[28] As it continues to descend, the stepped leader may branch into a number of paths.[29] The progression of stepped leaders takes a comparatively long time (hundreds of milliseconds) to approach the ground. This initial phase involves a relatively small electric current (tens or hundreds of amperes), and the leader is almost invisible when compared with the subsequent lightning channel.

When a stepped leader approaches the ground, the presence of opposite charges on the ground enhances the strength of the electric field. The electric field is strongest on ground-connected objects whose tops are closest to the base of the thundercloud, such as trees and tall buildings. If the electric field is strong enough, a conductive discharge (called a positive streamer) can develop from these points. This was first theorized by Heinz Kasemir.[30][31] As the field increases, the positive streamer may evolve into a hotter, higher current leader which eventually connects to the descending stepped leader from the cloud. It is also possible for many streamers to develop from many different objects simultaneously, with only one connecting with the leader and forming the main discharge path. Photographs have been taken on which non-connected streamers are clearly visible.[32]

Once a channel of ionized air is established between the cloud and ground this becomes a path of least resistance and allows for a much greater current to propagate from the Earth back up the leader into the cloud. This is the return stroke and it is the most luminous and noticeable part of the lightning discharge.


Lightning sequence (Duration: 0.32 seconds)

When the electric field becomes strong enough, an electrical discharge (the bolt of lightning) occurs within clouds or between clouds and the ground. During the strike, successive portions of air become a conductive discharge channel as the electrons and positive ions of air molecules are pulled away from each other and forced to flow in opposite directions.

The electrical discharge rapidly superheats the discharge channel, causing the air to expand rapidly and produce a shock wave heard as thunder. The rolling and gradually dissipating rumble of thunder is caused by the time delay of sound coming from different portions of a long stroke.[33]


Lightning is a highly visible form of energy transfer.

High speed videos (examined frame-by-frame) show that most lightning strikes are made up of multiple individual strokes. A typical strike is made of 3 or 4 strokes, though there may be more.[34]

Each re-strike is separated by a relatively large amount of time, typically 40 to 50 milliseconds. Re-strikes can cause a noticeable "strobe light" effect.[33]

Each successive stroke is preceded by intermediate dart leader strokes akin to, but weaker than, the initial stepped leader. The stroke usually re-uses the discharge channel taken by the previous stroke.[35]

The variations in successive discharges are the result of smaller regions of charge within the cloud being depleted by successive strokes.[citation needed]

The sound of thunder from a lightning strike is prolonged by successive strokes.


Cloud-to-ground lightning

Some lightning strikes exhibit particular characteristics; scientists and the general public have given names to these various types of lightning. The lightning that is most-commonly observed is streak lightning. This is nothing more than the return stroke, the visible part of the lightning stroke. The majority of strokes occur inside a cloud so we do not see most of the individual return strokes during a thunderstorm.[citation needed]

Cloud-to-ground lightning

This is the best known and second most common type of lightning. Of all the different types of lightning, it poses the greatest threat to life and property since it strikes the ground. Cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning is a lightning discharge between a cumulonimbus cloud and the ground. It is initiated by a leader stroke moving down from the cloud.[citation needed]

Bead lightning

Bead lightning Brisbane, Australia Nov 2006.jpg

Bead lightning is a type of cloud-to-ground lightning which appears to break up into a string of short, bright sections, which last longer than the usual discharge channel. It is relatively rare. Several theories have been proposed to explain it; one is that the observer sees portions of the lightning channel end on, and that these portions appear especially bright. Another is that, in bead lightning, the width of the lightning channel varies; as the lightning channel cools and fades, the wider sections cool more slowly and remain visible longer, appearing as a string of beads.[36][37]

Ribbon lightning

Ribbon lightning occurs in thunderstorms with high cross winds and multiple return strokes. The wind will blow each successive return stroke slightly to one side of the previous return stroke, causing a ribbon effect.[citation needed]

Staccato lightning

Staccato lightning is a cloud-to-ground lightning (CG) strike which is a short-duration stroke that (often but not always) appears as a single very bright flash and often has considerable branching.[38]These are often found in the visual vault area near the mesocyclone of rotating thunderstorms and coincides with intensification of thunderstorm updrafts. A similar cloud-to-cloud strike consisting of a brief flash over a small area, appearing like a blip, also occurs in a similar area of rotating updrafts.[citation needed]

Forked lightning

Forked lightning is a name, not in formal usage, for cloud-to-ground lightning that exhibits branching of its path.[citation needed]

Ground-to-cloud lightning

Ground-to-cloud lightning is a lightning discharge between the ground and a cumulonimbus cloud initiated by an upward-moving leader stroke. This type of lightning forms when negatively charged ions called the stepped leader rise up from the ground and meet the positively charged ions in a cumulonimbus cloud. Then the strike goes back to the ground as the return stroke. This is also called positive lightning.[citation needed]

Cloud-to-cloud lightning

Multiple paths of cloud-to-cloud lightning, Swifts Creek, Australia
Cloud-to-cloud lightning, Victoria, Australia

Lightning discharges may occur between areas of cloud without contacting the ground. When it occurs between two separate clouds it is known as inter-cloud lightning, and when it occurs between areas of differing electric potential within a single cloud it is known as intra-cloud lightning. Intra-cloud lightning is the most frequently occurring type.[18]

These are most common between the upper anvil portion and lower reaches of a given thunderstorm. This lightning can sometimes be observed at great distances at night as so-called "heat lightning". In such instances, the observer may see only a flash of light without hearing any thunder. The "heat" portion of the term is a folk association between locally experienced warmth and the distant lightning flashes.

Another terminology used for cloud–cloud or cloud–cloud–ground lightning is "Anvil Crawler", due to the habit of the charge typically originating from beneath or within the anvil and scrambling through the upper cloud layers of a thunderstorm, normally generating multiple branch strokes which are dramatic to witnesses. These are usually seen as a thunderstorm passes over the observer or begins to decay. The most vivid crawler behavior occurs in well developed thunderstorms that feature extensive rear anvil shearing.

Sheet lightning

Sheet lightning is an informal name for cloud-to-cloud lightning that exhibits a diffuse brightening of the surface of a cloud, caused by the actual discharge path being hidden. The lightning itself cannot be seen by the spectator, so it appears as only a flash, or a sheet of light.[citation needed]

Heat lightning

Heat lightning is a common name for a lightning flash that appears to produce no thunder because it occurs too far away for the thunder to be heard. The sound waves dissipate before they reach the observer.[39]

Dry lightning

Volcanic material thrust high into the atmosphere can trigger lightning.
Lightning strikes during the eruption of the Galunggung volcano, Indonesia in 1982

Dry lightning is a term in Canada and the United States for lightning that occurs with no precipitation at the surface. This type of lightning is the most common natural cause of wildfires.[40] Pyrocumulus clouds produce lightning for the same reason that it is produced by cumulonimbus clouds. When the higher levels of the atmosphere are cooler, and the surface is warmed to extreme temperatures due to a wildfire, volcano, etc., convection will occur, and the convection produces lightning. Therefore, fire can beget dry lightning through the development of more dry thunderstorms which cause more fires (see positive feedback).

Rocket lightning

It is a form of cloud discharge, generally horizontal and at cloud base, with a luminous channel appearing to advance through the air with visually resolvable speed, often intermittently.[41]

Positive lightning

Anvil-to-ground (Bolt from the blue) lightning strike

Unlike the far more common "negative" lightning, positive lightning occurs when a positive charge is carried by the top of the clouds (generally anvil clouds) rather than the ground. Generally, this causes the leader arc to form in the anvil of the cumulonimbus and travel horizontally for several miles before veering down to meet the negatively charged streamer rising from the ground. The bolt can strike anywhere within several miles of the anvil of the thunderstorm, often in areas experiencing clear or only slightly cloudy skies; they are also known as "bolts from the blue" for this reason. Positive lightning makes up less than 5% of all lightning strikes.[42] Because of the much greater distance they must travel before discharging, positive lightning strikes typically carry six to ten times the charge and voltage difference of a negative bolt and last around ten times longer.[43] During a positive lightning strike, huge quantities of ELF and VLF radio waves are generated.[44]

As a result of their greater power, as well as lack of warning, positive lightning strikes are considerably more dangerous. At the present time, aircraft are not designed to withstand such strikes, since their existence was unknown at the time standards were set, and the dangers unappreciated until the destruction of a glider in 1999.[45] The standard in force at the time of the crash, Advisory Circular AC 20-53A, was replaced by Advisory Circular AC 20-53B in 2006,[46] however it is unclear whether adequate protection against positive lighting was incorporated.[47][48]

Positive lightning is also now believed[by whom?] to have been responsible for the 1963 in-flight explosion and subsequent crash of Pan Am Flight 214, a Boeing 707.[49] Due to the dangers of lightning, aircraft operating in U.S. airspace have been required to have lightning discharge wicks to reduce the damage by a lightning strike, but these measures may be insufficient for positive lightning.[50]

Positive lightning has also been shown to trigger the occurrence of upper atmosphere lightning. It tends to occur more frequently in winter storms, as with thundersnow, and at the end of a thunderstorm.[18]

Ball lightning

Ball lightning may be an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, the physical nature of which is still controversial. The term refers to reports of luminous, usually spherical objects which vary from pea-sized to several metres in diameter.[51] It is sometimes associated with thunderstorms, but unlike lightning flashes, which last only a fraction of a second, ball lightning reportedly lasts many seconds. Ball lightning has been described by eyewitnesses but rarely recorded by meteorologists.[52] Scientific data on natural ball lightning is scarce owing to its infrequency and unpredictability. The presumption of its existence is based on reported public sightings, and has therefore produced somewhat inconsistent findings.

Laboratory experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but at present, it is unknown whether these are actually related to any naturally occurring phenomenon. One theory is that ball lightning may be created when lightning strikes silicon in soil, a phenomenon which has been duplicated in laboratory testing.[53] Given inconsistencies and the lack of reliable data and completely contradicting and unpredictable behavior, the true nature of ball lightning is still unknown[54] and was often regarded as a fantasy or a hoax.[55] Reports of the phenomenon were dismissed for lack of physical evidence, and were often regarded the same way as UFO sightings.[54] Severely contradicting descriptions of ball lightning makes it impossible even to create plausible hypothesis that will take into account described behavior.

One theory that may account for this wider spectrum of observational evidence is the idea of combustion inside the low-velocity region of spherical vortex breakdown of a natural vortex (e.g., the 'Hill's spherical vortex').[56] Natural ball lightning appears infrequently and unpredictably, and is therefore rarely (if ever truly) photographed. However, several purported photos and videos exist. Perhaps the most famous story of ball lightning unfolded when 18th-century physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann installed a lightning rod in his home and was struck in the head - and killed - by a "pale blue ball of fire."[57]

Upper-atmospheric lightning

Representation of upper-atmospheric lightning and electrical-discharge phenomena

Reports by scientists of strange lightning phenomena about storms date back to at least 1886. However, it is only in recent years that fuller investigations have been made. This has sometimes been called megalightning.[58][59]


Sprites are large-scale electrical discharges that occur high above a thunderstorm cloud, or cumulonimbus, giving rise to a quite varied range of visual shapes. They are triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between the thundercloud and the ground.[44] The phenomena were named after the mischievous sprite (air spirit) Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. They normally are coloured reddish-orange or greenish-blue, with hanging tendrils below and arcing branches above their location, and can be preceded by a reddish halo.[58] They often occur in clusters, lying 50 kilometres (31 mi) to 90 kilometres (56 mi) above the Earth's surface. Sprites were first photographed on July 6, 1989 by scientists from the University of Minnesota and have since been witnessed tens of thousands of times.[60] Sprites have been mentioned as a possible cause in otherwise unexplained accidents involving high altitude vehicular operations above thunderstorms.[61]

Blue jets

Blue jets differ from sprites in that they project from the top of the cumulonimbus above a thunderstorm, typically in a narrow cone, to the lowest levels of the ionosphere 25 miles (40 km) to 50 miles (80 km) above the earth.[62] They are also brighter than sprites and, as implied by their name, are blue in colour. They were first recorded on October 21, 1989, on a video taken from the space shuttle as it passed over Australia, and subsequently extensively documented in 1994 during aircraft research flights by the University of Alaska.[59][63]

On September 14, 2001, scientists at the Arecibo Observatory photographed a huge jet double the height of those previously observed, reaching around 50 miles (80 km) into the atmosphere. The jet was located above a thunderstorm over the ocean, and lasted under a second. Lightning was initially observed traveling up at around 50,000 m/s in a similar way to a typical blue jet, but then divided in two and sped at 250,000 m/s to the ionosphere, where they spread out in a bright burst of light.[64] On July 22, 2002, five gigantic jets between 60 and 70 km (35 to 45 miles) in length were observed over the South China Sea from Taiwan, reported in Nature.[63] The jets lasted under a second, with shapes likened by the researchers to giant trees and carrots.[citation needed]


Lightning strikes the Space Shuttle Challenger before the launch of STS-8.

Elves often appear as dim, flattened, circular in the horizontal plane, expanding glows around 250 miles (400 km) in diameter that last for, typically, just one millisecond.[65] They occur in the ionosphere 60 miles (97 km) above the ground over thunderstorms. Their color was a puzzle for some time, but is now believed to be a red hue. Elves were first recorded on another shuttle mission, this time recorded off French Guiana on October 7, 1990. Elves is an acronym for Emissions of Light and Very Low Frequency Perturbations from Electromagnetic Pulse Sources.[66] This refers to the process by which the light is generated; the excitation of nitrogen molecules due to electron collisions (the electrons possibly having been energized by the electromagnetic pulse caused by a discharge from the Ionosphere).[59]

Triggered lightning


Lightning has been triggered by launching lightning rockets carrying spools of wire into thunderstorms. The wire unwinds as the rocket ascends, providing a path for lightning. These bolts are typically very straight due to the path created by the wire.[67]

Lightning has also been triggered directly by other human activities: Flying aircraft can trigger lightning.[68] Furthermore, lightning struck Apollo 12 soon after takeoff, and has struck soon after thermonuclear explosions.[69]

Volcanically triggered

There are three types of volcanic lightning:

  • Extremely large volcanic eruptions, which eject gases and material high into the atmosphere, can trigger lightning. This phenomenon was documented by Pliny The Elder during the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, in which he perished.[70]
  • An intermediate type which comes from a volcano's vents, sometimes 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long.
  • Small spark-type lightning about 3 feet (0.91 m) long lasting a few milliseconds.[71]


Since the 1970s,[72][73][74][75][76] researchers have attempted to trigger lightning strikes by means of infrared or ultraviolet lasers, which create a channel of ionized gas through which the lightning would be conducted to ground. Such triggering of lightning is intended to protect rocket launching pads, electric power facilities, and other sensitive targets.[77][78][79][80][81]

In New Mexico, U.S., scientists tested a new terawatt laser which provoked lightning. Scientists fired ultra-fast pulses from an extremely powerful laser thus sending several terawatts into the clouds to call down electrical discharges in storm clouds over the region. The laser beams sent from the laser make channels of ionized molecules known as "filaments". Before the lightning strikes earth, the filaments lead electricity through the clouds, playing the role of lightning rods. Researchers generated filaments that lived too short a period to trigger a real lightning strike. Nevertheless, a boost in electrical activity within the clouds was registered. According to the French and German scientists, who ran the experiment, the fast pulses sent from the laser will be able to provoke lightning strikes on demand.[82] Statistical analysis showed that their laser pulses indeed enhanced the electrical activity in the thundercloud where it was aimed—in effect they generated small local discharges located at the position of the plasma channels.[83]

Extraterrestrial lightning

Lightning requires the electrical breakdown of a gas, so it cannot exist in a visual form in the vacuum of space. However, lightning has been observed within the atmospheres of other planets, such as Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Lightning on Venus is still a controversial subject after decades of study. During the Soviet Venera and U.S. Pioneer missions of the 1970s and '80s, signals suggesting lightning may be present in the upper atmosphere were detected.[84] However, recently the Cassini–Huygens mission fly-by of Venus detected no signs of lightning at all. Despite this, it has been suggested that radio pulses recorded by the spacecraft Venus Express may originate from lightning on Venus.[85]

High energy radiation emissions due to lightning

The production of X-rays by a bolt of lightning was theoretically predicted as early as 1925[86] but no evidence was found until 2001/2002,[87] when researchers at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology detected X-ray emissions from an induced lightning strike along a wire trailed behind a rocket shot into a storm cloud. In the same year University of Florida and Florida Tech researchers used an array of electric field and X-ray detectors at a lightning research facility in North Florida to confirm that natural lightning makes X-rays in large quantities. The cause of the X-ray emissions is still a matter for research, as the temperature of lightning is too low to account for the X-rays observed.[88]

Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes

A number of observations by space-based telescopes have revealed even higher energy gamma ray emissions, the so-called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs). These observations pose a challenge to current theories of lightning, especially with the discovery of the clear signatures of antimatter produced in lightning.[89]

Double lightning

It has been discovered in the past 15 years that among the processes of lightning is some mechanism capable of generating gamma rays, which escape the atmosphere and are observed by orbiting spacecraft. Brought to light by NASA's Gerald Fishman in 1994 in an article in Science,[90] these so-called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) were observed by accident, while he was documenting instances of extraterrestrial gamma ray bursts observed by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO). TGFs are much shorter in duration, however, lasting only about 1 ms.

Professor Umran Inan of Stanford University linked a TGF to an individual lightning stroke occurring within 1.5 ms of the TGF event,[91] proving for the first time that the TGF was of atmospheric origin and associated with lightning strikes.

CGRO recorded only about 77 events in 10 years; however, more recently the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft, as reported by David Smith of UC Santa Cruz, has been observing TGFs at a much higher rate, indicating that these occur about 50 times per day globally (still a very small fraction of the total lightning on the planet). The energy levels recorded exceed 20 MeV.

Scientists from Duke University have also been studying the link between certain lightning events and the mysterious gamma ray emissions that emanate from the Earth's own atmosphere, in light of newer observations of TGFs made by RHESSI. Their study suggests that this gamma radiation fountains upward from starting points at surprisingly low altitudes in thunderclouds.

Steven Cummer, from Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, said, "These are higher energy gamma rays than come from the sun. And yet here they are coming from the kind of terrestrial thunderstorm that we see here all the time."

Early hypotheses of this pointed to lightning generating high electric fields and driving relativistic runaway electron avalanche at altitudes well above the cloud where the thin atmosphere allows gamma rays to easily escape into space, similar to the way sprites are generated. Subsequent evidence however, has suggested instead that TGFs may be produced by driving relativistic electron avalanches within or just above high thunderclouds. Though hindered by atmospheric absorption of the escaping gamma rays, these theories do not require the exceptionally intense lightning that high altitude theories of TGF generation rely on.

The role of TGFs and their relationship to lightning remains a subject of ongoing scientific study.


Because the electrostatic discharge of terrestrial lightning superheats the air to plasma temperatures along the length of the discharge channel in a short duration, kinetic theory dictates gaseous molecules undergo a rapid increase in pressure and thus expand outward from the lightning creating a shock wave audible as thunder. Since the sound waves propagate not from a single point source but along the length of the lightning's path, the sound origin's varying distances from the observer can generate a rolling or rumbling effect. Perception of the sonic characteristics is further complicated by factors such as the irregular and possibly branching geometry of the lightning channel, by acoustic echoing from terrain, and by the typically multiple-stroke characteristic of the lightning strike.

Since light travels at a significantly greater speed than sound through air, an observer can approximate the distance to the strike by timing the interval between the visible lightning and the audible thunder it generates. At standard atmospheric temperature and pressures near ground level, sound will travel at roughly 343 m/s (1125 ft/sec); a lightning flash preceding its thunder by five seconds would be about one mile (1.6 km) distant. A flash preceding thunder by three seconds is about one kilometer distant. Consequently, a lightning strike observed at a very close distance (within 100 meters) will be accompanied by the sound of a loud snap, thunder almost instantaneously and the smell of ozone (O3).

Lightning-induced magnetism

Lightning induced remanent magnetization (LIRM) mapped during a magnetic field gradient survey of an archaeological site located in Wyoming, United States

The movement of electrical charges produces a magnetic field (see electromagnetism). The intense currents of a lightning discharge create a fleeting but very strong magnetic field. Where the lightning current path passes through rock, soil, or metal these materials can become permanently magnetized. This effect is known as lightning-induced remanent magnetism, or LIRM. These currents follow the least resistive path, often horizontally near the surface[92] but sometimes vertically, where faults, ore bodies, or ground water offers a less resistive path.[93] Lightning-induced magnetic anomalies can be mapped in the ground,[94][95] and analysis of magnetized materials can confirm lightning was the source of the magnetization[96] and provide an estimate of the peak current of the lightning discharge.[97]

Records and locations

Global map of lightning frequency
Lightning Flash Density - 12 hourly means over the year (NASA OTD/LIS)

An old estimate of the frequency of lightning on Earth was 100 times a second. Now that there are satellites that can detect lightning, including in places where there is nobody to observe it, it is known to occur on average 44 ± 5 times a second, for a total of nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year;[98][99] 75% of these flashes are either cloud-to-cloud or intra-cloud and 25% are cloud-to-ground.[100]

The maps on the right show that lightning is not distributed evenly around the planet.[101] Approximately 70% of lightning occurs in the tropics where the majority of thunderstorms occur. The place where lightning occurs most often (according to the data from 2004–2005) is near the small village of Kifuka in the mountains of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,[102] where the elevation is around 975 metres (3,200 ft). On average this region receives 158 lightning strikes per square kilometre (approx. 0.4 square mile) a year.[99] Above the Catatumbo river, which feeds Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, Catatumbo lightning flashes several times per minute, 140 to 160 nights per year, accounting for 25% of the world's production of upper-atmospheric ozone. Singapore has one of the highest rates of lightning activity in the world.[103] The city of Teresina in northern Brazil has the third-highest rate of occurrences of lightning strikes in the world. The surrounding region is referred to as the Chapada do Corisco ("Flash Lightning Flatlands").[104] In the US, Central Florida sees more lightning than any other area. For example, in what is called "Lightning Alley", an area from Tampa, to Orlando, there are as many as 50 strikes per square mile (about 20 per km²) per year.[105][106] The Empire State Building is struck by lightning on average 23 times each year, and was once struck 8 times in 24 minutes.[107]

  • Roy Sullivan held a Guinness World Record after surviving 7 different lightning strikes across 35 years.[108]
  • In July 2007, lightning killed up to 30 people when it struck a remote mountain village Ushari Dara in northwestern Pakistan.[109]
  • On 31 October 2005, sixty-eight dairy cows, all in full milk, died on a farm at Fernbrook on the Waterfall Way near Dorrigo, New South Wales after being struck by lightning. Three others were paralysed for several hours but they later made a full recovery. The cows were sheltering under a tree when it was struck by lightning and the electricity spread onto the surrounding soil killing the animals.[110]

Lightning rarely strikes the open ocean, although some sea regions are lightning "hot spots". Winter storms passing off the east coast of the United States often erupt with electrical activity when they cross the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream endures about the same number of lightning strikes as the southern plains of the USA.

Lightning detection

The earliest detector invented to warn of the approach of a thunder storm was the lightning bell. Benjamin Franklin installed one such device in his house.[111] The detector was based on an electrostatic device called the 'electric chimes' invented by Andrew Gordon in 1742.

Lightning discharges generate a wide range of electromagnetic radiations, including radio-frequency pulses. The times at which a pulse from a given lightning discharge arrive at several receivers can be used to locate the source of the discharge. The United States federal government has constructed a nation-wide grid of such lightning detectors, allowing lightning discharges to be tracked in real time throughout the continental U.S.[112][113]

In addition to ground-based lightning detection, several instruments aboard satellites have been constructed to observe lightning distribution. These include the Optical Transient Detector (OTD), aboard the OrbView-1 satellite launched on April 3, 1995, and the subsequent Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) aboard TRMM launched on November 28, 1997.[114][115][116]

Notable lightning strikes

Some lightning strikes have caused either numerous fatalities or great damage. The following is a partial list:

  • In 1660, lightning struck the gunpowder magazine at Osaka Castle, Japan; the resultant explosion set the castle on fire. In 1665, lightning struck the main tower of the castle and it burned down to the foundation.
  • A particularly deadly lightning incident occurred in Brescia, Italy in 1769. Lightning struck the Church of St. Nazaire, igniting the 100 tons of gunpowder in its vaults; the resulting explosion killed 3000 people and destroyed a sixth of the city.[117]
  • 1902: A lightning strike damaged the upper section of the Eiffel Tower, requiring the reconstruction of its top[118]
  • December 8, 1963: Pan Am Flight 214 crashed as result of a lightning strike, killing all 81 people on board.
  • July 12, 1970, the central mast of the Orlunda radio transmitter collapsed after a lightning strike destroyed its basement insulator.
  • December 24, 1971: LANSA Flight 508 crashed as a result of lightning in Peru, with 91 people killed.[119]
  • November 2, 1994, lightning struck fuel tanks in Dronka, Egypt and caused 469 fatalities.[120]

Harvesting lightning energy

Since the late 1980s there have been several attempts to investigate the possibility of harvesting energy from lightning. While a single bolt of lightning carries a relatively large amount of energy (approximately 5 billion joules[121]), this energy is concentrated in a small location and is passed during an extremely short period of time (milliseconds); therefore, extremely high electrical power is involved.[122] It has been proposed that the energy contained in lightning be used to generate hydrogen from water, or to harness the energy from rapid heating of water due to lightning.[123]

A technology capable of harvesting lightning energy would need to be able to rapidly capture the high power involved in a lightning bolt. Several schemes have been proposed, but the ever-changing energy involved in each lightning bolt render lightning power harvesting from ground based rods impractical - too high, it will damage the storage, too low and it may not work.[124] According to Northeastern University physicists Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, a lightning bolt carries a few million joules of energy, enough to power a 100-watt bulb for 5.5 hours. Additionally, lightning is sporadic, and therefore energy would have to be collected and stored; it is difficult to convert high-voltage electrical power to the lower-voltage power that can be stored.[123]

In the summer of 2007, an alternative energy company called Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI) tested a method for capturing the energy in lightning bolts. The design for the system had been purchased from an Illinois inventor named Steve LeRoy, who had reportedly been able to power a 60-watt light bulb for 20 minutes using the energy captured from a small flash of artificial lightning. The method involved a tower, a means of shunting off a large portion of the incoming energy, and a capacitor to store the rest. According to Donald Gillispie, CEO of AEHI, they "couldn't make it work," although "given enough time and money, you could probably scale this thing up... it's not black magic; it's truly math and science, and it could happen."[125]

According to Dr. Martin A. Uman, co-director of the Lightning Research Laboratory at the University of Florida and a leading authority on lightning,[126] a single lightning strike, while fast and bright, contains very little energy, and dozens of lighting towers like those used in the system tested by AEHI would be needed to operate five 100-watt light bulbs for the course of a year. When interviewed by The New York Times, he stated that the energy in a thunderstorm is comparable to that of an atomic bomb, but trying to harvest the energy of lightning from the ground is "hopeless".[125]

Another major challenge when attempting to harvest energy from lighting is the impossibility of predicting when and where thunderstorms will occur. Even during a storm, it is very difficult to tell where exactly lightning will strike.[127]

A relatively easy method is the direct harvesting of atmospheric charge before it turns into lightning. At a small scale, it was done a few times with the most known example being Benjamin Franklin's experiment with his kite. However, to collect reasonable amounts of energy very large constructions are required, and it is relatively hard to utilize the resulting extremely high voltage with reasonable efficiency.[citation needed]

In culture

As expressions and symbols

The expression "Lightning never strikes twice (in the same place)" is similar to "Opportunity never knocks twice" in the vein of a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, i.e., something that is generally considered improbable. Lightning occurs frequently and more so in specific areas. Since various factors alter the probability of strikes at any given location, repeat lightning strikes have a very low probability (but are not impossible).[107][128] Similarly, "A bolt from the blue" refers to something totally unexpected.

Some political parties use lightning flashes as a symbol of power, such as the People's Action Party in Singapore and the British Union of Fascists during the 1930s. The Schutzstaffel, the secret police of the Nazi Party, used the Sig rune in their logo which symbolizes lightning. The German word Blitzkrieg, which means "lightning war", was a major offensive strategy of the German army during World War II.

In French and Italian, the expression for "Love at first sight" is Coup de foudre and Colpo di fulmine, respectively, which literally translated means "lightning strike". Some European languages have a separate word for lightning which strikes the ground (as opposed to lightning in general); often it is a cognate of the English word "rays". The name of New Zealand's most celebrated thoroughbred horse, Phar Lap, derives from the shared Zhuang and Thai word for lightning.[129]

The bolt of lightning in heraldry is called a thunderbolt and is shown as a zigzag with non-pointed ends. This symbol usually represents power and speed. In Hindu mythology the thunderbolt (Sanskrit Vajra) is an attribute of the Hindu god Indra. The lightning bolt or thunderbolt appears also as a heraldic charge.

The lightning bolt is used to represent the instantaneous communication capabilities of electrically-powered telegraphs and radios, and is a common insignia for military communications units throughout the world. A lightning bolt is also the NATO symbol for a signal asset.


This is divination by observing lightning or by listening to thunder.[130] It is a type of aeromancy. People have also sought to control lightning by conducting rituals or casting spells.


Over the centuries, lightning in cultures was viewed as part of a deity or a deity in of itself. One of the most classic portrayals of this is of the Greek god Zeus. An ancient story is when Zeus was at war against Kronus and the Titans, he released his brothers, Hades and Poseidon, along with the Cyclopes. In turn, the Cyclopes gave Zeus the thunderbolt as a weapon, which was near the beginning of Zeus himself. The thunderbolt became a popular symbol of Zeus and continues to be today.

Animation depicting intercloud lightning in Toulouse, France.

The Aztecs portrayed lightning as a supernatural power of the god Tlaloc, visualized as his axe. In mythology, Tlaloc was the bringer not only of beneficial rain but of storms, killer lightning bolts, flood, and disease.[citation needed]

The Classic Mayas personified lightning as a rain deity classified by scholars as God K. This deity has a leg shaped like a lightning serpent, and a forehead perforated by a lightning celt. A miniature God K is often wielded as an axe by the king.[citation needed]

In Slavic mythology the highest god of the pantheon is Perun, the god of thunder and lightning.

Pērkons/Perkūnas is the common Baltic god of thunder, one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon. In both Latvian and Lithuanian mythology, he is documented as the god of thunder, rain, mountains, oak trees and the sky.

In Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and the sound of thunder comes from the chariot he rides across the sky. The lightning comes from his hammer Mjölnir.

In Finnish mythology, Ukko (engl. Old Man) is the god of thunder, sky and weather. The Finnish word for thunder is ukkonen, derived from the god's name.

In the Jewish religion, a blessing "...He who does acts of creation" is to be recited, upon sighting lightning. The Talmud refers to the Hebrew word for the sky, ("Shamaim") - as built from fire and water ("Esh Umaim"), since the sky is the source of the inexplicable mixture of "fire" and water that come together, during rainstorms. This is mentioned in various prayers[131] and discussed in writings of Kabbalah.

In Islam, the Quran states: "He it is Who showeth you the lightning, a fear and a hope, and raiseth the heavy clouds. The thunder hymneth His praise and (so do) the angels for awe of Him. He launcheth the thunder-bolts and smiteth with them whom He will." (Qur'an 13:12–13) and, "Have you not seen how God makes the clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them into a stack, and then you see the rain come out of it..." (Quran, 24:43). The preceding verse, after mentioning clouds and rain, speaks about hail and lightning, "...And He sends down hail from mountains (clouds) in the sky, and He strikes with it whomever He wills, and turns it from whomever He wills."

In India, the Hindu god Indra is considered the god of rains and lightning and the king of the Devas.

In Japan, the Shinto god Raijin is considered the god of lightning and thunder. He is depicted as a demon who strikes a drum to create lightning.

In the traditional religion of the African Bantu tribes, such as the Baganda and Banyoro of Uganda, lightning is a sign of the ire of the gods. The Baganda specifically attribute the lightning phenomenon to the god Kiwanuka, one of the main trio in the Lubaale gods of the sea or lake. Kiwanuka starts wild fires, strikes trees and other high buildings, and a number of shrines are established in the hills, mountains and plains to stay in his favor. Lightning is also known to be invoked upon one's enemies by uttering certain chants, prayers, and making sacrifices.

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  124. ^ Various companies have publicized their intent to industrially harvest lightning power, but most seem to be internet hoaxes. When discussing energy harvesting the numbers are typically misquoted.
  125. ^ a b Glassie, John (December 9, 2007). "Lightning Farms". The New York Times. Retrieved August 29, 2009. 
  126. ^ [1][dead link]
  127. ^ "Could you power a city with lightning?". Retrieved 1 September 2011. 
  128. ^ "Jesus actor struck by lightning". BBC News International Version. October 23, 2003. Retrieved 2007-08-19. 
  129. ^ "Lightning". Phar Lap: Australia's wonder horse. Museum Victoria. 
  130. ^ "cerauno-, kerauno- + (Greek: thunderbolt, thunder, lightning)". Retrieved 2010-06-11. 
  131. ^ i.e. In the prayer for rain, The angel that fought Jacob was a rainstorm "minister angel, mixed of fire and water". Other examples: Extra recitings for 2nd day of Passover, and many more. See for example Hebrew book Shekel Aish discussing lightning.


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Lightning — Light ning (l[imac]t n[i^]ng), n. [For lightening, fr. lighten to flash.] 1. A discharge of atmospheric electricity, accompanied by a vivid flash of light, commonly from one cloud to another, sometimes from a cloud to the earth. The sound… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Lightning — (engl. für Blitz) ist der Name für: Lockheed P 38, Lightning, ein US amerikanisches Jagdflugzeug des Zweiten Weltkriegs English Electric Lightning, einen britischen Abfangjäger der 1960er Jahre Lockheed Martin F 35 Lightning II, ein in… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • lightning — lightning, lightening Lightning is the spelling with reference to electrical flashes in the sky (thunder and lightning), whereas lightening is a form of the verb lighten • (I welcome the lightening of this burden that s imposed on councils… …   Modern English usage

  • lightning — late 13c., prp. of lightnen make bright, extended form of O.E. lihting, from leht (see LIGHT (Cf. light) (n.)). Meaning cheap, raw whiskey is attested from 1781, also sometimes gin. Lightning bug is attested from 1778. Lightning rod from 1790 …   Etymology dictionary

  • lightning — ► NOUN 1) the occurrence of a high voltage electrical discharge between a cloud and the ground or within a cloud, accompanied by a bright flash. 2) (before another noun ) very quick: lightning speed. ORIGIN from LIGHTEN(Cf. ↑lighten) …   English terms dictionary

  • lightning — [līt′niŋ] n. [ME lightninge < lightnen, to LIGHTEN1] 1. a flash of light in the sky caused by the discharge of atmospheric electricity from one cloud to another or between a cloud and the earth 2. such a discharge of electricity vi. to give… …   English World dictionary

  • Lightning — Light ning (l[imac]t n[i^]ng), vb. n. Lightening. [R.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Lightning — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Sur les autres projets Wikimedia : « Lightning », sur le Wiktionnaire (dictionnaire universel) Lightning signifie « éclair » en… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • lightning — /luyt ning/, n., v., lightninged, lightning, adj. n. 1. a brilliant electric spark discharge in the atmosphere, occurring within a thundercloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. v.i. 2. to emit a flash or flashes of lightning… …   Universalium

  • lightning — {{Roman}}I.{{/Roman}} noun ADJECTIVE ▪ ball, forked, sheet ▪ Forked lightning flickered across the sky. ▪ heat (esp. AmE) ▪ greased (figura …   Collocations dictionary

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