What are Lightning Strikes?

Lightning storm in Arizona
  • An average lightning strike contains 15 million volts of energy. 
  • A single strike can heat the surrounding air to over 50,000 o F. 
  • Around 100 lightning strikes hit the Earth every second. That makes around eight million strikes every day. 
  • Unlike common belief, lightning can strike the same place twice. 
  • The phenomena kills an average of 73 people in the US each year. 

Lightning Strike

Every year, people around the world experience three billion lightning strikes but not all make contact with land. If you look at the numbers, as little as 3% of the total strikes touch the surface of the Earth. When they hit the surface, the temperature of the surrounding air rises to around 50,000 o F at that specific instance. Imagine what it can do to the surface it touches! But on a positive note, the temperature rapidly decreases. Scientists have tried a gazillion times to capture the static charges but have not succeeded so far. 

According to some data, every year, around 6,000 people die as a result of lightning strikes. However, National Geographic nullifies the claim and states that not more than 2,000 people die each year.

What is a Lightning Strike and Why Does it Happen?

Lightning is basically an electrical discharge. When there is a thunderstorm, the particles of rain and at times snow particles due to very cold temperatures collide. This friction creates imbalance and in most cases, a negative charge is generated which reaches the lower parts of the cloud. Nature then comes into action to rectify this imbalance. 

As a result, we see lightning. From objects on the ground like trees, steeples, even people to different objects from the surface which create positive charges, all can get affected by a lightning strike. When the negative and positive charges come in contact with each other we see a lightning strike.

As mentioned earlier, a lightning strike can be extremely hot. The temperature of the air surrounding the strike can go as high as 50,000 o F.  This rapid change in temperature causes the air to expand and Bang! We hear the thunder. Since the speed of sound is lower compared to the speed of light, we can see the lightning strike first, then followed by the sound of thunder. 

Types of Lightning

Lightning strikes can be classified according to how they are distributed. They can either be distributed within the clouds or can be between the clouds and the ground. Let’s take a look at each type.

Lightning Within the Clouds 

Lightning within the clouds can be further divided into two types. 

Intra Cloud Lightning  

Intra cloud lightning is the one that happens within just one cloud ball. It generally happens on the outer sides of the cloud. The scenario is the same of negative and positive discharges. But the only difference is it never reaches the ground. 

Inter Cloud Lightning

This type of lightning happens when two clouds come in contact with each other. In scientific terms, different areas in the clouds have different charges. Some are positive while others are negative. Lightning happens when negative and positive charges come in contact. This type of lightning is the most commonly occurring type of lightning. 

Cloud to Ground Lightning 

It is obvious from the name that this is the type of lightning which generates within the clouds but hits the ground. Though it is the least common type of lightning, this is definitely the deadliest form of lightning witnessed by humans on this planet. 

A stepped leader or the negatively charged initiator descends from the top of the cloud. Along the way, more negative charges gather. But when it hits the surface, it results in a major disaster. 

Another way of defining lightning is through the shapes. 

Sheet Lightning

When a lightning strike occurs in just one cloud and lightens up the whole cloud, it is call sheet lightning. It happens mainly in intra cloud lightning. This type of lightning can be very rarely seen in inter cloud lightning.

Heat Lightning

This is the most common type of lightning we all witness. When lightning occurs in the sky within different clouds which come in contact with each other. As a result of interaction of the positive and negative charges, a lightning strike is created. 

Staccato Lightning 

Staccato lightning is a type of lightning which occurs for a very short and brief instance. It looks like a straight line with a single flash similar to a camera flash. On its way down to the surface of the Earth, it also reveals some of its branches. This happens in cloud to ground lightning. 

Forked Lightning

This is also a type of cloud to ground lightning. It is a very simple lightning which has branches and all the branches touch base with the surface but the origin is the same charge.

Ribbon Lightning

This type of lightning is most common during thunderstorms. When the wind is moving fast and with cross winds when the charges come in contact, the process of lightning starts. This causes multiple strikes to hit the surface of the ground, with every strike right next to the other in the direction of the wind. Obviously this again happens during cloud to ground lightning.

Bead Lightning

This is one of the rarest types of lightning. When lightning breaks into different parts and strikes different sections in the same area with no fixed patterns, the system is called bead lightning.

There are a few more types but they are not commonly known and are very rare. In the final section, we will look into the biggest lightning disaster in history. 

The Biggest Disaster Due To Lightning

The biggest disaster due to lightning happened during the times of the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.

As the dictator took over a small European country named Luxembourg in the early 1800s, he converted it into his backyard to store arms and ammunition. He constructed a number of bunkers and underground warehouses to stock his weapons and supplies. 

On June 26th 1807, a lightning strike at one of his gunpowder factories in Luxemburg, one of the smallest countries in Europe. This factory was built in a fortress in the southern part of the country in the city of Kirchberg. The fortress was constructed in 1732 and was now being used as an armory to refill the Napoleon forces in the southern part of the country.

Subsequently the factory exploded and immediately killed approximately 300 people in the very same instance. The ammunition depot was destroyed along with the gunpowder factory. 2 blocks of the castle were destroyed, leaving everything living, dead. Several other areas nearby were also burnt and huge quantities of armor were also destroyed. So it can be concluded that what appears to be Nature’s lightning show is something which can be extremely dangerous and deadly.

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