Answered by Travis Wyatt, Meteorologist, National Weather Service-Pocatello, ID
Any rain in the path of lightning will turn to steam. Lightning can heat the air anywhere from 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit to up to 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So, lightning is extremely hot. Lightning traveling down a tree trunk turns water to steam. If lightning gets under the bark into the surface moisture of the wood, the rapidly expanding steam can blast pieces of bark from the tree. Lightning is long, on average about 7 miles. However, lightning is not thick or large, only about the size of a silver dollar. Lightning just looks bigger because it is so bright. So, even though the rain hit by the lightning turns to steam, you won’t notice due to the small area impacted. The lightning turning the rain to steam won’t change the amount of noticeable rain coming down.
Lightning strikes the Unites States about 25 million times a year. Although most lightning occurs in the summer, people can be struck at any time of the year. Lightning kills an average of 47 people in the United States each year and hundreds more are severely injured.
Lightning is a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground. In the early stages of development, air acts as an insulator between the positive and negative charges in the cloud and between the cloud and ground. When the opposite charge builds up enough, this insulating capacity of the air breaks down and there is a rapid discharge of electricity that we know as lightning. The flash of lightning temporarily equalizes the charged regions in the atmosphere until the opposite charges build up again.
Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. It can be seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snow storms, in large hurricanes, and thunderstorms.
There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors! Too many people wait far too long to get to a safe place when thunderstorms approach. Unfortunately, these delayed actions lead to many of the lightning deaths and injuries in the United States. For more safety information go to https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning-safety and https://scijinks.gov/zap-game/.
What is Lightning?
Materials: Fluorescent light bulb, rubber balloon
- Turn off all the lights in the room–the darker, the better!
- Rub the balloon on your hair for several seconds.
- Hold the statically-charged balloon near the glass end of the light bulb. You should see the bulb illuminate.
EXPLANATION: When you rub the balloon on your hair, the balloon builds up an electrical charge (static electricity). Touching the charged balloon to the end of the fluorescent light bulb causes the electrical charge to jump from the balloon to the bulb. This is what illuminates the light bulb. Lightning is an electrical discharge within a thunderstorm. As the storm develops, the clouds become charged with electricity. Scientists are still not sure exactly what causes this, but they do know that when the voltage becomes high enough for the electricity to leap across the air from one place to another, lightning flashes! Lightning can spark within a cloud, from one cloud to another, from a cloud to the ground, or from the ground to a cloud.
What is Thunder?
Materials: brown paper lunch bag
- Blow into the brown paper bag and fill it up with air.
- Twist the open end and close with your hand.
- Quickly hit the bag with your free hand.
EXPLANATION: Hitting the bag causes the air inside the bag to compress so quickly that the pressure breaks the bag. The air rushes out and pushes the air outside away from the bag. The air continues to move forward in a wave. When the moving air reaches your ear, you hear a sound. Thunder is produced in a similar way. As lightning strikes, energy is given off that heat the air through which it passes. This heated air quickly expands producing energetic waves of air resulting in a sound called thunder.