Each of us at least once in our lives watched a thunderstorm with lightning bolts cutting the half sky – one of the most spectacular and terrifying natural phenomena. Lightning strikes kill several thousand people annually. However, in addition to the deadly danger of thunderstorms, there are also many curious puzzles.
People have long tried to understand what is a thunderstorm, why it begins, and usually explained it by tricks of Gods or other mythical creatures. Almost every nation had its own God of thunder: the Egyptians Seth, the Greeks Zeus, the Chinese Lei Gong, Indra Hindus, the Eastern Slavs Perun, the Scandinavians Tor. Some primitive peoples represented a thunderstorm in the form of a giant bird, which creates peals of thunder by clapping wings and lightning by sparkling eyes. Almost always, the thunder meant that people behaved badly and rotted the Gods.
Today we have enough tools to explain a lot of thunderstorm information from a scientific point of view.
Any thunderstorm begins with a cloud. It is formed by warm air currents that lift water vapor from the Earth, which is formed by evaporation of water from rivers, lakes, seas, oceans. As the steam rises above the Earth, it cools down: the higher from the land, the lower the ambient temperature. At first, the steam condenses into liquid droplets, then ice chunks are formed and fall out as precipitation.
The mechanisms of lightning in the cloud are not fully understood, but there is a common concept of electrifying a storm cloud. The charge accumulates in the center of the cloud, where the air quickly rushes upwards. Due to low temperatures, a mixture of water droplets, pieces of ice, and soft hail are formed there.
The upward flow of air raises the water droplets and pieces of ice, while heavier and denser hailstones fall down. In the event of a collision, more massive hailstones take an electron from the surface of the ice floes, resulting in a positive charge for the upper part of the cloud, where the ice chunks tend, and a negative charge for the lower part, where the hailstones fall. Between the variously charged areas, voltage is generated, creating an electric field.
This leads to the movement of the charged particles and, as a consequence, to the appearance of an electric current. Current can occur both between differently charged parts of the clouds and between the cloud and an object on the Earth’s surface. Such a current is called lightning, a bright flash of which we observe during a storm. This is the moment when do thunderstorms occur.
Contrary to popular belief, lightning can strike twice, if not more, in the same place. The Empire State Building receives from 20 to 100 lightning strikes annually, and once there were 8 strikes within 24 minutes! Other skyscrapers get on average 25 times a year. But thanks to the lightning rods, they remain safe and unharmed.
Read more about thunderstorms in our article about thunderstorm facts
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