Air needs to be both warm and moist to create a thunderstorm. This also provides the required energy to sustain it. A column of warm air rises quickly into the upper strata of the atmosphere. The strength of the uplift of air depends on the temperature gradient existing through the thickness of the atmosphere. In the strongest thunderstorms, it can exceed speeds of 100 mph. On reaching the upper strata of the atmosphere, the air cools down as it expands in volume. It spreads out horizontally at higher altitudes, forming an anvil shape. A floating dense cloud or a â€œcumulusâ€ cloud that floats effortlessly can weigh as much as one million pounds. We should be thankful that all rain does not fall all at once!
In the upper altitudes, tiny droplets of water form due to a process called condensation. These droplets appear to be floating in the air as clouds but are actually falling at a relatively low speed. Their speeds do not increase due to gravity because they attain terminal velocity soon after their formation. However, their size increases progressively as they fall and many droplets merge together. As their weight increases, they descend with greater speed towards the earth.
During rainfall, small droplets of rain sometimes pass through regions of turbulent air. When this happens, they are tossed up and down many times. Falling crystals of ice during a hailstorm undergo a similar phenomenon, colliding with each other. In the process of attrition, electrons are knocked off from some water molecules and get deposited on other molecules. Due to charge separation within the thickness of the cloud, the top layer becomes positively charged and the bottom gets negatively charged. A potential gradient then starts acting between the two layers. The same potential gradient becomes active between the lower layer of the cloud and the ground since the earth is generally positively charged. This potential gradient is also found between two adjacent clouds that are oppositely charged.
All these regions of potential gradient are a breeding ground for lightning. Air, which is a non-conductor, keeps the current in check, to flow between any two oppositely charged layers. But when the potential gradient rises to an alarming magnitude of one billion-volts, a huge flow of charge equivalent to 30,000 ampere flows, breaking the barrier put up by the air mass. Discharge of electricity may occur between two layers within the cloud, between two adjacent clouds, or between a cloud and the earth. However, the majority of lightning takes place within a cloud.
Thus, lightning is a phenomenon of electric discharge. During a lightning strike, temperatures may rise to 30,000 degrees, which is five times hotter than the surface temperature of the Sun.
Worldwide, about 100 lightning strikes occur every second and close to 2,000 people are unfortunate casualties of this phenomenon each year. Roy Sullivan, an American, currently holds the world record for surviving the maximum number of electrocutions by lightning. During his 25-year career as a park ranger, he was struck by lightning seven times.
Lightning can be witnessed during a volcanic eruption as well. Huge clouds of gases and ash emerge from the vent of a volcano. The dust particles create charge separation due to friction. Subsequently, lightning appears. However, this lightning is localized and of lesser ferocity.
Lightning has been observed in the atmosphere of planets like Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. There, lightning is generated by gas particles present in these planetsâ€™ respective atmospheres. On the gas giant Jupiter, the ferocity of lightning is many times that witnessed on the earth.
Lightning in cold regions:
Lightning can also occur during a hailstorm in a frigid zone. It forms when strong gushes of cold air carrying snowflakes or hail crash into each other, causing charges to be exchanged and moved around. This phenomenon is called thundersnow or a thunder snowstorm.
Lightning due to thermonuclear explosion:
Thermonuclear explosions create a huge ball of gas and dust similar to the ones witnessed during a volcanic eruption. They create charged particles in the atmosphere that give birth to lightning on a local basis. This is a rare instance where humankind is directly responsible for lightning.
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