Lightning strikes the Earth over 25 million times each year.
Lightning, a rapid discharge of electrical energy in the atmosphere, is among the most impressive weather phenomena on the planet. It’s also quite dangerous.
The winds within a thunderstorm or similar column of rapidly rising air causes particles of ice to crash into each other. During the crashes, smaller particles lose electrons while larger ones gain electrons, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
As the cloud bottoms become charged negatively, the ground below becomes charged positively. When the difference between the negative charge in the cloud and the positive charge on the ground becomes large, the negative charge starts moving toward the ground. As it moves, it creates a conductive path.
When the negative charge from the cloud contacts the positively charged ground, electrical current surges through the path, which creates a visible flash of lightning. Thunder is the sound of a shock wave created by the rapid heating and cooling of the air in the lightning channel.
Thirty people typically die in the US each year from lightning strikes, according to National Weather Service records. Tragically, this year’s first lightning fatality occurred in Colorado on May 7 when a woman riding a horse was struck.
Lightning is a heat source that can ignite fires in vegetation and buildings because it heats the contact area five times hotter than the Sun’s surface, according to NOAA. Fortunately, the heat dissipates rapidly, but for that split second, enough heat exists to combine with oxygen and fuel to create fire and significant burns. It’s also enough energy to kill.
Many lightning victims are caught outside during a storm because they were not aware of the predicted weather, they did not act quickly to get to a safe place, or they return outside too soon after a storm has passed. Those victims include athletes, roofers, landscapers, farmers, families and builders.
The safest place during a thunderstorm is inside a building or hard-topped vehicle. When thunder roars, go indoors.
You can protect your home, church or business with lightning protection technology. The Lightning Protection Institute is one online source for such information.
If you hear thunder, even a distant rumble, get to a safe place immediately. Lightning can travel several miles from the actual cloud. Thunder is the perfect clue to seek shelter before dangerous lightning begins.