Worldwide, it’s estimated that lightning occurs 50-100 times every single second. It’s one of the greatest visual displays in our world, yet despite its awe-inspiring power, scientists are still learning and discovering new things about lightning.
Lightning forks and rejoins itself over Table Mountain and Lion's Head in Cape Town, South Africa. Central Africa is the area of the world where lightning strikes most frequently. Photo by Lynda Smith, My Shot.
A dramatic cloudburst releases jagged bolts of lightning deep into the Grand Canyon near Point Sublime. Photo by Michael Nichols, National Geographic.
Often seen flashing between storm clouds, these bursts of light are pure electricity. The main point of contention surrounding lightning is what exactly causes the electricity to be released from the clouds. However, it is generally understood and agreed upon that lightning occurs in the meeting of updrafts and downdrafts of thunderstorms. As storm clouds grow bigger, massive groups of positively charged particles, called protons, are moving to the top of the cloud, and negatively charged particles, called electrons, are moving toward the bottom. Once they get big enough, these massive groups cause lightning.
The upper part of the thunderstorm cloud becomes positively charged while the middle to lower part of the thunderstorm cloud becomes negatively charged.
Most lightning actually exists within the cloud itself. When the lightning does escape from the cloud, it lasts only a fraction of a second but contains hundreds of millions of volts of power. Although lightning looks like one single stroke, it is actually a strike to the ground as well as a series of return strokes back into the cloud.
A bolt of lightning strikes the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai, China. The antenna on top of the 1535 ft (468 m) tower caught fire in April 2010, and lightning was thought to be the cause. Lightning bolts can reach temperatures more than 4 times hotter than the sun. Photo by Sung Ming.
Lightning strikes can reach temperatures of 50,000ºF (27,760ºC). This intense heat is the reason for thunder. Excessive pressure within the lightning path expands at supersonic rates, leading to the loud boom we hear. The greatest frequencies of lightning are in Central Africa, the Himalayas, and South America. Within the United States, lightning leads to over 100 deaths every year – more than hurricanes or tornadoes.
The most powerful lightning ever recorded by humanity occurred on October 31, 2018, in South America. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the lightning bolt stretched over 440 miles (708 kilometers) across Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.
This lightning bolt was classified as a "megaflash" and lasted for a total of 16.73 seconds. It had a peak current of 1.3 billion amps, which is approximately 3 million times stronger than a typical household electrical current. The bolt released an estimated energy of 1.2 gigajoules, which is equivalent to the energy released by a powerful earthquake.
The previous record for the longest lightning bolt was set in 2007 over Oklahoma in the United States and was about half the length of the 2018 megaflash. The WMO started keeping track of extreme weather and climate events in 2007 and has since documented a total of four "megaflashes."
It's worth noting that the lightning was detected by satellites rather than directly observed, so it's possible that even more powerful lightning strikes have occurred without being recorded.
"Electricity is really just organized lightning." – George Carlin
"They say marriages are made in Heaven. But so is thunder and lightning." – Clint Eastwood
“The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“If lightning is the anger of the gods, then the gods are concerned mostly about trees.” – Lao Tzu
What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley by Kim Cross
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