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Lightning is still a big ‘natural killer’ in India

  • Posted By
    10Pointer
  • Categories
    Geography
  • Published
    2nd January, 2021

What is Lightning?

  • Lightning is a very rapid and massive discharge of electricity in the atmosphere, some of which is directed towards the Earth’s surface.
  • It is a sudden high-voltage discharge of electricity that takes place between clouds, or the charge may travel all the way to the ground.
  • A lightning bolt can carry as much as 300 KV of energy.
  • The surrounding air can heat up to 50,000 degrees, which means that one can literally burst into flamesor be left with deep entry and exit wounds if struck by lightning. 

How these discharges are generated (the process)?

  • These discharges are generated in giant moisture-bearing clouds that are 10-12 km tall.
  • The base of these clouds typically lies within 1-2 km of the Earth’s surface, while their top is 12-13 km away.
  • Temperatures towards the top of these clouds are in the range of minus 35 to minus 45 degrees Celsius.
  • As water vapour moves upward in the cloud, the falling temperature causes it to condense. Heat is generated in the process, which pushes the molecules of water further up.
  • As they move to temperatures below zero degrees celsius, the water droplets change into small ice crystals.
  • They continue to move up, gathering mass — until they are so heavy that they start to fall to Earth.
  • This leads to a system in which, simultaneously, smaller ice crystals are moving up and bigger crystals are coming down.
  • Collisions follow, and trigger the release of electrons — a process that is very similar to the generation of sparks of electricity. As the moving free electrons cause more collisions and more electrons, a chain reaction ensues.
  • This process results in a situation in which the top layer of the cloud gets positively charged, while the middle layer is negatively charged.
  • The electrical potential difference between the two layers is huge — of the order of a billion to 10 billion volts. In very little time, a massive current, of the order of 100,000 to a million amperes, starts to flow between the layers.
  • An enormous amount of heat is produced, and this leads to the heating of the air column between the two layers of the cloud.
  • This heat gives the air column a reddish appearance during lightning. As the heated air column expands, it produces shock waves that result in thunder.

How does this current reach the Earth?

  • While the Earth is a good conductor of electricity, it is electrically neutral.
  • However, in comparison to the middle layer of the cloud, it becomes positively charged.
  • As a result, about 15%-20% of the current gets directed towards the Earth as well. It is this flow of current that results in damage to life and property on Earth.

Why lightning strikes tall objects?

  • There is a greater probability of lightning striking tall objects such as trees, towers or buildings.
  • Once it is about 80-100 m from the surface, lightning tends to change course towards these taller objects.
  • This happens because air is a poor conductor of electricity, and electrons that are travelling through air seek both a better conductor and the shortest route to the relatively positively charged Earth’s surface.

Safety tips when lightning strikes

  • Seek shelter inside a large building or a car
  • Get out of wide, open spaces and away from exposed hilltops
  • If you have nowhere to shelter, make yourself as small a target as possible by crouching down with your feet together, hands on knees and head tucked in
  • Do not shelter beneath tall or isolated trees
  • If you are on water, get to the shore and off wide, open beaches as quickly as possible