It’s not hard to see why lightning was feared by our ancestors and believed to be the weapon of the Gods. A sharp flash of light going from stormclouds, followed by the clap of thunder certainly makes you notice a storm. For a fantasy writer where the main character is an Angel of Heaven, lightning powers were a natural fit. But what actually is lightning?
After doing some research, I decided to write this blog because the science is cool and I like to spread cool science. To do that, we need to delve into fulminology. I hope you folks don’t have astraphobia. (I can use big words well me.)
(Disclaimer: I’m no expert, but merely expressing casual interest. None of this research is my own work and I encourage you to click the links below for further details as well as official journals if you have access to them.)
As I mentioned in The OK “Science” Report 1: Plasma, lightning is actually plasma, the fourth state of matter that is more common in the vastness of space than on Earth. Lightning is simply an electrical discharge that occurs during thunderstorms. What happens in stormclouds is that a charge separation of positive and negatively charged particles occurs. The exact mechanics are still being determined, but what ends up happening is that the stormcloud’s electric potential becomes very large at the bottom of the stormcloud.
Ok, what else happens? Clouds are always on the move, carried by the wind. Since the bottom of the stormcloud is highly charged and moving, this will induce an opposite charge of similar magnitude on the ground. So we end up with two highly charged, but oppositely charged surfaces. And we always say when it comes to love, opposites attract. (Internally pukes.)
So surely the charged particles would just attract and move to meet each other? Well, no. Unlike, Tinder, charged particles can’t just organise a meet-up like that. Why? Because of what separates the ground and the storm clouds, the air. The air is a gas and as such, charged particles find it very difficult to travel through it. Because of this, the electrical discharge that occurs must be powerful enough to overcome the air’s high resistance. A plasma channel ends up forming and a stream of high energy, charged particles are able to strike the earth.
Lightning strikes only just for a fraction of second before disappearing as the particles are moving at very high speeds, reaching temperatures of 30,000 K. The temperature of the impact site sparks and can vaporise the sap in trees, resulting in ignition. Thunder is formed by the air in contact with the plasma channel being heated to the temperatures of the plasma channel. A shockwave forms as a result of the pressure increase from being heated and then the subsequent expansion of said heated air. This expansion is heard as thunder.
Lightning is very common. So why doesn’t it cause more destruction? Because lightning has a very short life. It’s over in a blink of an eye. Yes, the temperatures get ridiculously high, but the exposure time is very very small. It’s why people can survive a lightning strike. Lightning can happen in other circumstances where highly charged particles are generated high in the sky. Hurricanes, volcanoes and snowstorms can also produce lightning.
I hope this has been educational. Lightning is awesome and I do encourage you to do your own research.
Interested? Want more? Here’s a link to the previous content for my project, soon to be a novel: The Successor of Ramiel where the main character is an Angel wielding a lightning sword. It’s as awesome as it sounds:
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- Saunders, C. P. R. (1993). “A Review of Thunderstorm Electrification Processes”. Journal of Applied Meteorology. 32 (4): 642–55.