Enlightening Lightning

Enlightening Lightning

By Kristen Bieret, Pottawattamie County Conservation Naturalist
Lightning strikes the earth approximately 8 million times a day or 100 times per second. That’s a lot of electricity in the air! Did you know that you have caused mini lightning before and even mini thunder? Remember rubbing your feet on the carpet with your socks and then touching the door handle … or your little sister? ZAP! That shock was your own miniature lightning storm and that snap was miniature thunder.
Lightning. Oklahoma 2009 May 1.  Photographer: Sean Waugh NOAA/NSSL.

Lightning. Oklahoma
2009 May 1. Photographer: Sean Waugh NOAA/NSSL.

Lightning is created through the same kind of static electricity only on a much bigger scale. Clouds are made up of moisture droplets and as they crash into each other it causes a charge separation in a cloud where the top of the cloud is more positively charged than the bottom.  During this process ionized air forms paths called step leaders. These don’t form a direct line straight to the other but rather many steps that eventually lead to the earth. This step leader is simply the traveling path for the electricity from the cloud to travel down to the earth.
By ThaliaTraianou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ThaliaTraianou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Remember rubbing your socks on the floor and touching the door handle? As you stood across the room you didn’t instantly get shocked, it was only as you got closer to the handle. This is because air normally doesn’t let static electricity travel easily through it. However when air become ionized it will form that step leader of paths to ground. You are the step leader when you rub your feet across the floor you hold the electricity and allow it to find an end path. Objects on the earth send up a positive streamer which will connect to the step leader completing the process. When these two meet the electric current that flows through them is so hot it causes the air to explode which creates thunder. We only see the light before the sound because light travels faster than the speed of sound.
We all know that we should be careful around lightening but just how powerful is it? An average bolt of lightning contains enough energy to power a 60-watt light-bulb for 6 months! There are about 30 million bolts of lightning in the United States per year, with an average of 330 people getting struck by lightning every year in the US. Out of those 330 people an average of 25 people die from those strikes. Here in Midwest we are more likely to experience lightening but you can greatly reduce your chances of getting hit by lightning just by moving to the North or South Pole or to the Pacific Islands! With the temperatures and ocean currents they see very little lightening or thunderstorms.
Description:''' A tree after a lightning stroke *''''Source:''' http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/lwx/lightning/tree-after-lightning.jpg {{PD-USGov-NOAA}}

Description:”’ A tree after a lightning stroke *””Source:”’ http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/lwx/lightning/tree-after-lightning.jpg {{PD-USGov-NOAA}}

Moving to another place might not be the most practical solution so here are some more helpful hints to help you stay safe right here at home. When you are driving or near your vehicle stay in the car; electricity can travel around the frame of the car creating a safe cage while protecting you inside.  Wait until the storm clears to exit the vehicle though. If you are outside stay far away from trees and water; crouch down with your feet together.  Most of us head indoors to avoid the storms but even inside you are not completely safe from lightening’s effects.  I know from personal experience that your home is not always the safest spot. My mother was at home working at her desk and the chimney in their house was struck by lightning, it traveled throughout the house causing the chimney top to explode, a wall to shoot across the room and the phone on the desk to shatter. She was just fine but the power of lightening was very apparent after the destruction it caused. It damaged anything electric in the house and even bent a water pipe causing a leak. So make sure when you go inside to avoid the dangerous weather you stay away from electric devices and unplug them if they aren’t in use. This includes your cell phone, put it down and walk away! Avoid metal windows and doors that might conduct electricity and avoid using water until the storm has passed as it can conduct electricity as well. No bubble baths during a lightning storm!
The best thing you can do during our Midwestern thunderstorms is to keep an eye on the weather forecast and to watch the sky. Keep an eye on the clouds if they start forming large very dark clouds start making your way to shelter and check the weather radar if you can. Just remember to turn off those electronic devices once the sparks start flying!
Works Cited: John Zavisa “How Lightning Works” 1 April 2000.
HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/lightning.htm> 15 March 2017