Lightning Awareness Week: Lightning Q & A

WSAV.com NOW Weather

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — It’s Day Four of Lightning Awareness Week! Meteorologist Scott Robert and Alysa Carsley are answering your lightning questions you posted on their social media pages. They also debunk popular lightning myths.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does it hurt when it hits you?
Answer: Not immediately since the strike happens quickly. However, the extreme heat burns you from the inside out. A second source of pain is from cardiac arrest. The electrical current disrupts the normal heart rhythm or stops the heart.

Q: Does lightning really come from the ground?
A: Yes, during the initial formation of a lightning strike, positive electrons from the ground begin flowing upward to the thunderstorm that usually has a negative charge. This is called a step leader. The flash of light that you see is from what is called a return stroke which is the discharge of electric current as negative electrons flow from the storm to the ground. This all happens within thousandths of seconds. So to us, it appears to all happen at once when we see the flash of light.

Q: Is lightning more dangerous on the beach or on a boat?
A: When outdoors during a thunderstorm is always dangerous and should be avoided. “When thunder roars, go indoors.” Being at the beach or an open-top boat is especially dangerous since you are the tallest object. Lightning flows through the path of least resistance from the ground to the storm. This is usually whatever the tallest object or structure around, you never want to be it.

Q: I heard that when lightning hits sand, the sand turns into glass…is that true?
A: It is true…sort of. First off, lightning is very hot. It can be up to 5 times hotter than the sun! When lightning hits sand, it creates fulgurite. However, it is very rare to find. 

You need a sandy beach high in silica or quartz. Beaches around the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry, like Tybee and Hilton Head Island, are high in silica and shells. When the lightning hits the sand, it fuses the sand into silica glass beneath the ground. Most fulgurite that forms are 1-2” around, 2’ or more in length and resemble tree branches left by the lightning strike. 

I’m sure when you picture glass, you think of a transparent window type of glass. This isn’t what it looks like. On the outside, it is a hard, crumbly, gray or brown texture. Much like tree bark. On the inside, a clear/whitish glass tube forms when the molten sand cools quickly.

Q: Is a lightning bolt only ½” in diameter?
A: Most lightning bolts are an inch in diameter or less… so, yes.

Q: What % of lightning actually hits the ground?
A: Most lightning stays in the storms in what is called cloud to cloud or intra-cloud lightning. Between 5 to 10 times more lightning does not reach the ground, so roughly about a quarter to a third of lightning actually hits the ground.

Q: Is there a particular surface temperature below which lightning cannot occur?
A: In order for thunderstorms to develop, you typically need to have surface dewpoint temperatures greater than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher the dewpoint becomes, the more moisture there is in the atmosphere. More moisture leads to instability which often leads to convective storm development. Convective storms grow vertically from warm and rising air. These are the storms that produce lightning. Since you do need relatively warm air, thunderstorms are more common in the warm seasons verses winter. However, lightning sometimes occurs in winter snowstorms that develop from some convection. 

Q: When will we ever understand ball lightning?
A: Ball lightning is a kind of lightning that is described as an electric charge in a spherical shape that may be very small to several feet in diameter. At this time there is no scientific explanation as to what causes it to form and is very rare.

Q: If I were to be struck by lightning and doused in chemicals at the same time, would I gain super-speed like The Flash?
A: No. But it would be cool! Wouldn’t it? Don’t try this!!

Q: What is heat lightning?
A: Heat lightning is simply lightning that you see at night from very distant thunderstorms that are too far for you to hear the thunder from. On clear nights, sometimes lighting may be seen from storms upwards of 100 miles away. Usually, the thunder you hear from storms is within about 15 miles of your location.

Q: How do people survive a lightning strike? A: When people are stricken by lightning, typically the heart goes into cardiac arrest because the electric current interferes with the heart’s. In order to survive, the key is having CPR preformed or restarting the heart with a defibrillator to get the heat back into rhythm. Even with that and surviving, the effects on the body may last forever. People who survive often times have severe burns along with nervous system and muscular system issues.

Q: How do they measure the temperature of lightning?
A: Lightning is an electrical charge and visible light which is electromagnetic radiation. By measuring the wavelength of the visible light, you can get an estimation of the temperature. The shorter wavelengths are associated with brighter visible light meaning the hotter the air becomes around the lightning. 

In reality, lightning is the flow of electricity and does not have a temperature. The atmosphere creates resistance to the electric flow and that is what is actually heating up. The heat associated with lightning strikes is about 50,000 degrees fahrenheit.

Q: Can it be harnessed and used to fuel an alternate power grid?
A: The short answer is that technically it would be possible, however, an extreme amount of infrastructure would be needed to attract and store the electrical charge. Tall towers or other structures would need to be constructed all over the earth’s surface to attract lightning. It is not guaranteed that lightning would always strike the power system. This would be extremely unreliable. Every day though, lightning produces enough current to power the world for over a week.

Q: How do people survive a lightning strike?
A: When people are stricken by lightning, typically the heart goes into cardiac arrest because the electric current interferes with the heart’s. In order to survive, the key is having CPR preformed or restarting the heart with a defibrillator to get the heat back into rhythm. Even with that and surviving, the effects on the body may last forever. People who survive often times have severe burns along with nervous system and muscular system issues.

Debunking Myths

Myth: Rubber tires protect my car from lightning
Truth: It is actually the metal roof and metal sides of the car that protect the car from lightning. The lightning is diverted by the metal frame into the ground.

As lightning strikes the vehicle’s metal frame, the electrical current travels around the outside of the vehicle and the current exits the car and into the ground through the tires.

M: if it is not raining, then there is no lightning danger.
T: This is not true! If you can still hear thunder, you are still close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Lightning can travel as far as 10 to 15 miles away from the storm and rain.

M: If outside during a storm, you should seek shelter under a tree.
T: No. You can still be struck by lightning. Lightning is attracted to tall objects. Trees are very tall and easy to hit. Stay away from tall, isolated trees. If you are in a forest, find shorter, lower trees to stand near. If you stand under a tree during a storm, there are multiple ways for the lightning bolt to still hit you. One way is called side flash – As lightning hits a tree near you, a portion of the electrical current could jump from the tree to you.

Another way is ground current – as lightning strikes a tree, much of its energy travels outward and along the tree and into the ground. Anyone near the tree or object could be struck through the ground…hence the name.

M: Lightning never strikes the same place twice
T: This is not true. Lightning repeatedly strikes the same place twice. Lightning is attracted to tall, isolated objects. In fact, the Empire State Building gets hit about 23 times each year.

M: People struck by lightning should not be touched because they carry an electrical charge.
T: While lightning itself is an electrical current…when someone gets hit by lightning, the human body does not store the electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim, especially to give them first aid.

M: If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning.
T: This is true. While a house is your safest place to be during a thunderstorm, a house is not 100% safe from lightning. Stay away from windows and anything that conducts electricity.

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