Lightning Awareness Week: What is Lightning?

WSAV NOW Weather

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – It’s day two of Lightning Awareness Week and it’s all about science! Storm Team 3 is focusing on the science of lightning and how lightning creates thunder. You’ll also learn a fun and very safe lightning science experiment!

What is lightning?

Lightning is a bright flash or spark of electricity that moves in several different ways throughout the sky. Lightning can move between the clouds and ground, between different clouds, and within the cloud. Every thunderstorm produces lightning…even if you don’t see it!

All the way up in the cloud, we have tiny frozen raindrops and those raindrops bump into each other. Their collisions create an electrical charge. We need a strong electrical charge to see a lightning bolt.

As the cloud grows, the more frozen raindrops there are…and the more raindrops means more collisions. Once the cloud fills up on electrical charge, then there are both positive and negative charges. The positive charges form at the top of the cloud while the negative charges are at the bottom.

Just like a magnet, opposites attract. Positive charges then form on the surface below the cloud and negative charges. Then the charges act like an electrical current. The electrical charges focus on anything that sticks up, like trees, houses, and people.

The positive charge coming up from the ground and the negative charge coming down from the cloud meet and ZAP!, lightning!!


This is a very easy experiment! I’m sure you’ve all done this before without even thinking twice about it.

Metal Doorknob

All you need to do is rub your feet on the carpet to get the electrical current flowing (just like the raindrops bumping into each other). Then, touch a metal doorknob. The negative charges will move up your body to your fingers. As opposites attract, positive charges will form on the doorknob.

You’ll know this works if you feel a shock! Lightning works the same way.

Did you know lightning creates thunder?

When I speak at schools, I always ask “does lightning create thunder or does thunder create lightning?”. Most of the time, I get the answer “thunder creates lightning”. It is actually the other way around!

First off, lightning is hot! and I do mean HOT!!!! Lightning can be five times hotter than the sun at times. As lightning travels through its path (whether it is cloud to ground or within the clouds), the extremely hot lightning bolt heats up air molecules in the surrounding air.

The now heated air molecules begin to move around quickly and push the cooler air away. This gives the heated air more room to move and expand.

The expansion creates BOOOOM, thunder! The faster the expansion, the louder the boom!

When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors

This is so important to remember because lightning is dangerous! Lightning can extend as far as 10-15 miles away from the rain. Even if a storm moves away from you, if you can still hear thunder, you can still be struck.

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