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Chemical Heat

Transferred energy from a site of higher energy to a site of lower energy

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When Lightning Strikes

When Lighting Strikes

Credit: C. Clark
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cloud-to-ground_lightning2_-_NOAA.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The ancient Greek deity Zeus was said to control lightning. Benjamin Franklin carried out experiments involving lightning to demonstrate that it was electricity. Many modern buildings have built-in protection against lightning strikes. Scientists study lightning, but there is still much we do not understand about this beautiful but dangerous phenomenon.

Amazing But True

  • Lightning is a result of charge separation between positive and negative ice particles in a thunderstorm. The smaller and lighter particles become positive and rise above the larger and heavier negative particles. A strong electrical potential builds up within the cloud and between the cloud and the ground.
  • When the electrical discharge occurs, the air in the vicinity is heated – often temperatures of over 20,000oC can be created. This heated air produces a shock wave which produces sound. Sound travels much more slowly (about 1100 feet or one-fifth mile) in a second while light speeds along at 186,000 miles/second. By counting the number of seconds between flash and sound and dividing by five, you can get a rough estimation of the miles between you and the lightning bolt (the further away the better).
  • Credit: zmmrc
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12085460@N02/2424703125/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Lightning discharges can occur between clouds without striking the ground. This is known as inter-cloud lightning [Figure2]


  • Lightning can emit a wide range of electromagnetic phenomena. We see light due to excited electrons dropping back down to lower energy levels. However, there are also X-rays, radio waves, and gamma emissions produced during lightning strikes.
  • Watch the video to see the formation of a lightning bolt: 


Show What You Know

Use the links below to answer the following questions.

  1. List three different types of lightning.
  2. You see a lightning flash and hear the thunder ten seconds later.  Approximately how far are you from the lightning flash?
  3. Which part of a cloud is more likely to be positively charged?
  4. What percentage of lightning strikes are cloud-to-cloud?
  5. What temperature can be generated by an atomic bomb?

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    Image Attributions

    1. [1]^ Credit: C. Clark; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cloud-to-ground_lightning2_-_NOAA.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    2. [2]^ Credit: zmmrc; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12085460@N02/2424703125/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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