Indian tribes in North America believed that lightning was due to the flashing feathers of a mystical whose flapping wings produced the sound of thunder. Today, scientific rather than mystical techniques are used to explain lightning with experimental procedures replacing intuitive concepts. Yet, we remain in awe of lightning which still shines with its mystery, and rightly so. Each year, lightning is responsible for the deaths of a hundred or so people, injuries to several hundred more, and millions of dollars in property damage, in the United States alone. It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on lightning injuries and fatalities since a systematic compilation of information on lightning casualties does not exist. Many case histories show heart damage.
Inflated lungs and brain damage have also been observed from lightning fatalities. Loss of consciousness, amnesia, paralysis and burns are reported by many who have survived. Deaths and injuries to livestock and other animals, thousands of forest and brush fires, as well as millions of dollars in damage to buildings, communications systems, power lines, and electrical systems are also the result of lightning. Finally, the threat of lightning causes many work stoppages and lost production increasing the time and cost required toprepare NASA spacecraft for flight.
Benjamin Franklin performed the first systematic, scientific study of lightning during the second half of the 18th century. Prior to that time, electrical science had developed to the point where positive and negative charges could be separated. Electrical machines could, by rubbing together two different materials, store the charges in primitive capacitors called Leyden Jars from which sparks could be generated and observed. While others had previously noted the similarity between laboratory sparks and lightning, Franklin was the first to design an experiment which conclusively proved the electrical nature of lightning.
In his experiment, he theorized that clouds are electrically charged, from which it follows that lightning must also be electrical. The experiment involved Franklin standing on an electrical stand, holding an iron rod with one hand to obtain an electrical discharge between the other hand and the ground. If the clouds were electrically charged then sparks would jump between the iron rod and a grounded wire, in this case, held by an insulating wax candle. This experiment was successfully performed by Thomas Francois D’Alibard of France in May 1752 when sparks were observed to jump from the iron rod during a thunderstorm.
G. W. Richmann, a Swedish physicist working in Russia during July 1753, proved that thunderclouds contain electrical charge, and was killed when lightning struck him. Before Franklin accomplished his original experiment, he thought of a better way to prove his hypothesis through the use of a kite. The kite took the place of the iron rod, since it could reach a greater elevation and could be flown anywhere. During a Pennsylvania thunderstorm in 1752 the most famous kite in history flew with sparks jumping from a key tied to the bottom of damp kite string to an insulating silk ribbon tied to the knuckles of Franklin’s hand.
Franklin’s grounded body provided a conducting path for the electrical currents responding to the strong electric field buildup in the storm clouds. In addition to showing that thunderstorms contain electricity, by measuring the sign of the charge delivered through the kiteapparatus, Franklin was able to infer that while the clouds were overhead, the lower part of the thunderstorm was generally negatively charged. Research continued at a steady pace until the late 1960’s when lightning research became particularly active. This increased interest was motivated both by the danger of lightning to aerospace vehicles and solid state electronics used in computers and other devices as well as by the improved measurement and observational capabilities which were made possible by advancing technology. There are 2 major charecteristics in a storm:lightning and thunder.
LIGHTNING- As the particles within a cloud (called hydrometeors) grow and interact, some become charged possible through collisions. It is thought that the smaller particles tend to acquire positive charge, while the larger particles acquire more negative charge. These particles tend to separate under the influences of updrafts and gravity until the upper portion of the cloud acquires a net positive charge and the lower portion of the cloud becomes negatively charged. This separation of charge produces enormous electrical potential both within the cloud and between the cloud and ground. This can amount to millions of volts, and eventually the electrical resistance in the air breaks down and a flash begins.
Lightning, then, is an electrical discharge between positive and negative regions of a thunderstorm. THUNDER-Sound is generated along the length of the lightning channel as the atmosphere is heated by the electrical discharge to the order of 20,000 degrees C (3 times the temperature of the surface of the sun). This compresses the surrounding clear air producing a shock wave, which then decays to an acoustic wave as it propagates away from the lightning channel. Although the flash and resulting thunder occur at essentially the same time, light travels at 186,000 miles in a second, almost a million times the speed of sound. Sound travels at the relatively snail pace of one-fifth of a mile in the same time.
Thus the flash, if not obscured by clouds, is seen before the thunder is heard. By counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder and dividing by 5, an estimate of the distance to the strike (in miles) can be made. There are 2 different types of lightning: CLOUD-TO-GROUND, and INTRA-CLOUD-LIGHTNING. CLOUD-TO-GROUND LIGHTNING is the most damaging and dangerous form of lightning. Although not the most common type, it is the one which is best understood. Most flashes originate near the lower-negative charge center and deliver negative charge to Earth.
However, an appreciable minority of flashes carry positive charge to Earth. These positive flashes often occur during the dissipating stage of a thunderstorm’s life. Positive flashes are also more common as a percentage of total ground strikes during the winter months. INTRA-CLOUD LIGHTNING is the most common type of discharge. This occurs between oppositely charged centers within the same cloud. Usually the process takes place within the cloud and looks from the outside of the cloud like a diffuse brightening which flickers.
However, the flash may exit the boundary of the cloud and a bright channel, similar to a cloud-to-ground flash, can be visible for many miles. Details of why a discharge stays within a cloud or comes to ground are not understood. Perhaps a flash propagates toward the Earth when the electric field gradient in the lower regions of the cloud is stronger in the downward direction. Depending upon cloud height above ground and changes in electric field strength between cloud and Earth, the discharge stays within the cloud or makes direct contact with the Earth. If the field strength is highest in the lower regions of the cloud a downward flash may occur from cloud to Earth.
From my research I have concluded that ligthning is a very important part of science andtechnologyWithout the discovery of electricity we would not have half the things we find necessary to live in our every day lives.