The science that explains how lightning strikes

The science that explains how lightning strikes

The sun, clouds, temperatures, currents and above all the movement of many small particles that charge the cloud (and not only) have to do with it

(Photo: Toufik Tabikh on Unsplash) photographers them, who studies them, also to try to develop predictive models to understand where they will hit. Knowing this is of fundamental importance, for the safety of people (even if these are very rare events, you can still be struck by lightning) and the environment. The warnings issued during strong thunderstorms, for example, can also be used to warn of the risk of fires associated with intense lightning. Because? What is lightning essentially made of?

To answer, it is first of all necessary to tell something about how thunderstorms are formed, where lightning is born. Helpful are the resources made available by the National Weather Service (Nws), the US government agency that deals with weather forecasts and the British meteorological service. Basically everything begins with the formation of clouds, following the heating of the air produced by the Sun. And it is inside the clouds that the process that gives rise to the formation of lightning begins, due to the movement of different particles, ice, hail and droplets of rain, which collide moved by internal currents.

The movement, and the clashes between these different types of particles actually produce a stratification within the storm clouds. At the top there are positively charged ice particles (due to the loss of electrons, negatively charged particles), while the heavier hail is negatively charged by acquiring electrons, in the lower-middle part of the cloud. In turn, this separation of charges induces an accumulation of other charges of opposite sense. The underlying soil, for example, due to the effect of the concentrated negative charges of the lower part of the storm clouds, becomes positively charged (ground and all and what is present in the vicinity, as recalled by the Nws).

These are the events that precede immediately the lightning: when the difference in internal charges between cloud and ground (but also between clouds and clouds, with attraction between charged areas of opposite sign) is so strong and such as to overcome the insulation given by the air, a discharge is observed electric (essentially a movement of charges as summarized by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, with currents averaging 30 thousand amperes, associated with the emission of light). This is the lightning, and as is well known it always precedes a thunder. In fact, thunder is nothing more than the sound produced by the rapid expansion of the air due to its heating, generated by lightning. Absurd temperatures can be reached, reaching 30 thousand degrees Celsius.

There are different types of lightning strikes, and beyond the names assigned to the different categories, the concept is that an electric discharge can occur between different parts with charges opposite. It is thus possible to observe discharges within the clouds as well as discharges affecting different areas of the clouds and the ground (that is, between the positively and negatively charged part of the ground, or between the negatively and positively charged part of the soil).

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