Lightning – 5 Times Hotter Than the Surface of the Sun

Ever since Benjamin Franklin  flew his kite and nearly blew himself up with the resultant lightning strike, we have been attempting to discover exactly how lightning works. A discharge of lightning is probably one of the most impressive displays in the atmosphere, yet surprisingly, despite years of study, the exact process is still shrouded in some mystery.

Lightning results from the build up of opposite electrical charges within a cloud. Ice crystals which form in the upper reaches of a cloud are generally positively charged, and water droplets which sink to the lower part of the cloud, are usually negatively charged. It appears that the ice crystals are positively charged as a result of collisions, within the maelstrom of a thunderstorm, with warmer water droplets. When the warmer droplet collides with an ice crystal it passes on its positive charge, and consequently the water droplet is now negatively charged.

Okay, so, as the storm now tracks across the land it is positively charged in its upper reaches and negatively charged in its lower portions. Because opposites charges attract a positive charge now builds up on the surface of the land directly below the storm. However, the air is an excellent insulator and initially stops these charges from joining each other. But as the potential difference builds between the cloud and the land eventually the inevitable happens and the air can no longer hold back the negative electrons and a process known as the ‘stepped leader’ occurs.

In the  ‘stepped leader’ a succession of steps are followed. The electrons do not flow in a steady and continuous manner but in a more erratic series of steps as follows:

1. Electrons surge downwards towards the ground at a speed of 14,000 mph for around 200-300 feet.

2. The electrons stop for a fifty-millionth of a second.

3. They travel on again for another 150-200 feet

4. Positive ions start to move up from the ground from any protruding object such as a tree or a golfer

5. When they meet, a huge electric current flows carrying positive ions into the cloud.

These ions are carried on a channel a few centimetres wide and as they move upwards they glow enough to be seen. So, like a giant spark, the lightning travels upwards into the cloud so fast that it is impossible to judge whether it is travelling up or down. Your typical lightning flash will consist of approximately 4 leaders and 4 return strokes indiscernible apart from the familiar flashing.

Lightning is incredibly hot, five times hotter than the surface of the Sun at 30,000 degrees Celsius.

As a consequence the air around a bolt of lightning expands in an explosion that causes a massive shock wave. This shock wave travels through the sky as the sound of thunder.

Because, relative to light, sound is very slow moving you can calculate how far away a lightning flash is by measuring the length of time between the flash and the thunder. Every 3 seconds counted is roughly half a mile away. But beware…the danger zone for a lightning strike is within 6 miles of the storm!

How Not to Play Golf During Stormy Weather: Lightning Survival Advice

Being outdoors while there is stormy weather is always a rick, especially if you are walking on the street, gardening, hiking, playing outdoor sports or driving. Many people have been struck by lightning and a high number of them cannot live to tell the story. A lot or people (adults and kids) and animals (mostly giraffes, elephants, cows and horses, but also dogs, pigs, etc.) die each day because of lighting. When you are out there in the golf court you are more exposed as normally there are no high structures or buildings nearby.

Lightning can strike at any time even when there are no clouds to tell there is an impending rain!

This article does not intend to give a full description of lightning. I recommend reading articles or books dedicated to lighting if you need more information about it.

I do not recommend people to go outdoors when there is stormy weather and definitely do not recommend practicing golf during electrical storms (some people still like to play the risk incredibly). I will describe here a few recommendations for people to follow if you are surprised out there to minimize the exposure to this dangerous phenomena called lighting.

I am a golf player and I have been in the golf court when there is a sunny day and all of a sudden found myself below a fast moving storm cloud. Check your weather reports closely if you decide to play golf at any time.

Lightning can strike from the cloud to earth but it can also strike from earth to ground, from cloud to cloud and air to air. “Ground” does not only refer to the physical earth ground but also to any grounded element (metal lighting rods or not) or body connected to ground. The manifestation of lighting can be seen, heard, smelled or felt. Usually we can see a lightning from ground to earth but it can most likely be following a ground to earth strike due to the stroboscopic effect of lightning.

You can hear lighting and you can tell more or less whether the lighting is near or far or how fast the storm is moving in or going away from you by counting the number of seconds you hear the strike after seeing the light. You can feel there is an impending strike by feeling your body skin and feeling or seeing your hair rise. You can smell sometimes the electrically charged atmosphere near you by an ozone like odor.

If you are caught in the field playing golf the first recommendation is to put your clubs in the golfing bag and then get shelter. Never seek coverage under a tree. Look for a shed or building.

When lighting strikes earth it can be described as throwing a stone in the pond. A set of “waves” travel at light speed on the earth surface. This “waves” have the same voltage (equipotential) but the voltage difference between the waves can be extremely high. Try to walk in short steps as the longer the steps, the more risks you are exposed to get a higher discharge (due to something called the “step voltage” which is the voltage difference between your feet, the higher the distance the higher the voltage in the event of a strike).

If you feel an imminent strike get a crouching position and cover your eyes and ears.

I hope that the recommendations describe herein can save someone’s life, minimize the chances or getting strike by a lighting. Feel free to pass along these recommendations to your friend and loved ones. Play golf safely!

Math and Weather Activity For Children – Calculating Lightning Distance

Bad weather does not need to be a frightening time for children. In fact, you can turn a stormy night into a great family activity that can be educational and fun for all members of your household.

The light that is generated from a bolt of lightning arrives at your eyes almost simultaneously. But since light travels faster than sound, you will always see the lightning before you actually hear it. The light arrives almost instantly moving at 186,000 miles/second while sound travels to you at approximately 770 miles per hour. At this rate, it takes sound just about 5 seconds to travel the distance of a mile. Using this information, we can easily calculate how far the lightning is away.

So to begin this activity, on the next stormy night, find a safe area and watch for flashes of lightning. As soon as you see a strike, start counting or use a stopwatch to record the number of seconds between the flash and the thunder that follows.

Once you have determined the seconds between the initial strike and the boom of thunder, all you have to do to estimate the distance is divide the seconds by 5. For example, if you see a bolt of lightning and hear thunder 9 seconds later, you would conclude that the lightning is approximately 1.8 miles away. We found this figure by dividing 9 by 5, which equals 1.8.

Here is another one: How far would a lightning strike be if you hear thunder 21 seconds after the first flash of lightning? Take 21 and divide it by 5 and your answer should be 4.2. So the lighting strike is around 4.2 miles away.

You should be aware that this method is not always 100% accurate. The thunder that you hear might not necessarily correspond directly to the lightning that you see. Instead, it could be from a different bolt of lightning all together. Not all lightning hits the ground, so many lightning strikes are out of your view, although the sound of the thunder will still reach your ears.

Safety should definitely be a top priority when observing lightning. You should stay away from metals, appliances, and tall objects such as trees or light poles.

You do not need to be a professional meteorologist to determine how far lightning is away and have fun observing the weather. All you need is a stopwatch and safe area to watch for lightning to turn an otherwise dreary evening into a fun and education experience.