Forces of Nature

CTV and Virgin Radio's own rapping weather specialist, Kevin Stanfield lays down some flashy science about lightning.

Guest post from Kevin Stanfield
Weather Specialist

Lightning is one of nature’s most beautiful and powerful forces.
And at some point in everyone’s life, lightning has fascinated us - in fact, some of us never grew out of that love for lightning!

But what is it?

As a current of cooler air (like a cold front) sweeps into warm, moist air, the warm air is forced upward, often violently. This creates a cloud, and freezes some of the moisture that was in the warm air. As the wind whips about within the storm, these ice particles (which may eventually fall as hail) bounce off of each other, forming static electricity. But that’s not all - positive charges and negative charges have different weights, causing the lighter positive charge to rise, and the heavier negative charge to sink.

Eventually, the charge grows too great, and a spark of electricity will fly between the negative and positive areas. This is called cloud-to-cloud lightning, which makes up around 90% of all lightning strikes. The other 10%, however, are the result of a positive charge building up at a point on the ground, which connects with the negative charge at the bottom of the cloud!

There are plenty of safety measures one can take regarding lightning, but first, a few interesting tidbits:

  • Lightning has a place in many different pantheons; in Norse mythology, the sound of thunder is believed to be Thor riding his mighty chariot across the sky; in Shinto, a theology of Japan, it’s thought the god Raijin creates lightning by hitting a drum, and, of course, the Greek god Zeus, whose weapon is a thunderbolt.

  • Santa Claus takes a little from stormy weather, too - Donner and Blitzen are respectively translated to “thunder” and “lightning” in German!
  • The odds of being struck in your lifetime - 1:3000!
  • The longest lightning bolt ever recorded was 199 miles long (320km!) over Oklahoma; the longest-lasting lightning flash: 7.74 seconds.
  • The maximum range of a lightning bolt: 10 miles (16km). This is only from 5% of cloud-to-ground strikes, however, when lightning leaves the cloud from the positive charges near the top of a storm; most strikes occur in the negative region of the cloud, which is much closer to the ground.
  • The annual record-holder for lightning strikes is Catatumbo in Venezuela - 1.2 million strikes per year occur there, with an average of 260 days of stormy weather, and regular evenings with 9+ hours of overnight lightning, where it’s not uncommon for 26 strikes to occur per minute!
  • Lightning can indeed strike the same place twice - the Empire State Building was once struck 49 times in a single day!
  • Lightning can reach a temperature of just under 30,000 degrees Celcius! For comparison’s sake, the surface of the sun is around 5,700 degrees Celcius.
  • Lightning charge immediately leaves a person’s body after they are struck, so it’s safe to help them after a strike.

So, how do you stay safe?

Let’s start with the most common source of injury in the United States: corded phones. If lightning strikes a telephone pole, that electricity can travel quite a distance through the telephone wire and cause serious injury. The same can be true of a corded computer mouse, so a cardinal rule when you’re in a shelter: avoid all wires during the storm!

What about if you can’t find a shelter?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that smaller shelters (outhouses, rain shelters, open-covering structures) aren’t suitable; they can still attract lightning, but also don’t offer the same protection that a structure with grounded piping and wiring can. The next-best option becomes a car. Sure, there’s plenty of metal around a car, but if you don’t lean against the sides, the car can be struck and the metal will conduct the electricity around you, and not through you.

How about the last-ditch?

Let’s say you’re stuck outside, with no car or shelter available. Trees aren’t a good option, as lightning’s electric current emanates from the object struck; that means that being within a few feet can be problematic! The keys are to make sure you aren’t the tallest thing around (ie. avoid open fields) and, as mentioned, to avoid being under solitary objects, like lampposts. This can mean crouching down, but mostly means to avoid open fields.

That’s all, that’s it for now! I can’t wait to meet some of you down at the Science Genius Rap Battle finals on May 18th!