Weather Academy: How does lightning form?

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 6:23 AM CDT
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MONROE, La. (KNOE) - This week on the Weather Academy, we will be talking about a new topic, lightning. Here in the ArkLaMiss, we get quite a bit of thunderstorm activity which leads to lightning. But do you know how it forms? Today Meteorologist Sheena Martin breaks down lightning formation in depth.

In order to have lightning form, we need warm air at the surface. As we learned last week, warm air is less dense than cold air, and it wants to rise. As it rises, it condenses and forms clouds, which will eventually grow and become storm clouds or what we call cumulonimbus. Within a cumulonimbus cloud, we have ice particles, and water droplets will also have very strong winds. So the winds are pushing around these particles. The smaller, lighter particles want to go towards the top, and the bigger, heavier particles want to go towards the bottom.

As all of these particles move around, they’re colliding, causing friction, allowing for charges to form. We’ll get positive and negative charges within the cloud. Now the charges want to balance themselves out. The positive charges will go towards the top of the cloud, and the negative charges will go towards the bottom of the cloud.

On the surface, we have trees, buildings, park benches, and even people, all of which give off a positive charge. And remember that opposites want to attract. The negative charge will eventually give off what we call a leader. The leader wants to meet up with a positive charge. Once it does, it causes that flash of lightning or that flash of energy as the two charges are meeting up.

The channel of air that lightning is traveling through is only about two to three centimeters wide but can reach temperatures over 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Now we can get different types of lightning strikes. You can get cloud-to-ground, which occurs when the negative charge meets up with the positive charge on the ground. You can also get intercloud, which are the charges meeting up inside of the cloud. And then, you can also get cloud-to-cloud which is the difference of charges between the two clouds, causing that lightning strike.

We hope that this explanation helped you better understand how lightning forms and how dangerous lightning can be. Always remember when thunder roars go indoors. Make sure you tune in to the Weather Academy next week when we will be conducting experiments involving lightning that you might find shocking!

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