How Is Lightning Formed?

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Overview

Clouds are Charged

  • Lightning is one of the most poorly understood natural occurrences around and also one of the most powerful and attractive. There is still some debate as to exactly how it happens, but the following is the most plausible and accepted explanation. It all starts with clouds that become electrically charged. Clouds themselves are made of evaporated water particles that are beginning to condense again. That means that heavier water particles and even ice particles remain on the lower areas of the cloud while newly evaporated particles rise to the top. As these particles rise and push through the cloud to get to the top, they collide with denser water molecules at the bottom. This causes electrons to get knocked off and accumulate at the bottom of the cloud. The now-positive water particles rise to the top, creating an electrical charge in the cloud.

Air is Ionized

  • This electrical charge can eventually become so strong that it pushes electrons on the Earth's surface farther down, as a magnet would push away another magnet if the two poles are facing each other. Now, the bottom half of the electric-charged cloud holds a negative charge, and the top of the earth holds a stronger positive charge. The stage is set for lightning to occur, as there is now an electric charge between the cloud and the earth.

Lightning Forms

  • In order to neutralize the charges on both ends, the air starts to break down and form a pathway through which electrons can travel. A pathway is first formed through the ionized air between the cloud and the Earth. Dust and objects that may be in the air will force the air to break down quickly, so the pathway is not always straight from the cloud to the Earth. Once it is formed, electricity travels through it in the form of lightning. Since the path is not straight, lightning often has many arcs and rarely travels in a straight line. Once the lightning has neutralized the air, the cloud, and the Earth, the current stops, usually about a millisecond after it started. Sometimes, though, a smaller current continues, and this "hot lightening" is responsible for many lightening fires.

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