St. George Utah Electrician | Southern Utah Electrical Company

The Power of Lightning

Lightning is an amazing natural phenomenon. A massive force in the sky, lightning has frightened, inspired, and raised the awe of human beings since the world began. As beautiful as it is shocking, it’s no wonder people have always wanted to know what lightning is, where it comes from, and how much power might be contained in every strike.

At any given time, there could be as many as 1,200 or more thunderstorms happening simultaneously all over the world. Experts estimate that Earth’s atmosphere is home to up to 100 flashes of lightning per second.

So, what exactly is the power of lightning? It contains an astounding level of energy, but not every strike is the same. An average bolt of lightning, for instance, consists of approximately 15 million volts of electricity, but a large strike could have up to 30 million volts. This massive charge instantly heats the surrounding air to 60,000-100,000 degrees or higher. In fact, one large thunderstorm can actually release as much or more energy than an atomic explosion.

Lightning is usually caused by the friction between cold and warm air. The upper, cooler air has a positive charge, and the lower air has a negative charge. Because air is a poor conductor for this energy, it restricts the flow of static electricity between these positive and negative charges. Ultimately, the energy builds until it breaches the insulation created by the air, and explodes in a lightning flash. Lightning can strike either between clouds or from the clouds to the ground. This creates a massive static electrical charge which is released in bolts of lightning. Lightning-inducing weather include thunderstorms, dust storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

In the United States, about 90 deaths per year are attributed to lightning, though there are incredible stories of survival as well. Lightning can disrupt power in large areas, and is likely to cause fires when it hits the trees or ground, especially when vegetation is dry. For this reason, dry thunderstorms or those that include only trace amounts of rain (sometimes called electrical storms) can be particularly dangerous.

Though the familiar bolts are what most people think of when they hear the word lightning, it can also come in other forms, referred to by meteorologists as as ball lightning, bead lightning, and in ribbons or sheets. It can even be artificially triggered in certain situations.

With so much lightning happening all over the world at any time, it shouldn’t be any surprise that buildings and homes are hit from time to time. This is not only dangerous to people, but also commonly causes structures to catch fire. Concerned homeowners often install lightning rods, which can alleviate much of that risk. Lightning rods are typically installed on the highest point of a structure. They work by providing an easier, safer route for lightning to reach the ground (meaning they are “grounded”).

People who live in an area prone to thunderstorms might consider having a lightning rod installed, especially those who have metal roofs. Experts believe they do work and can save structures from fire. Take the Empire State Building in New York City, for example. Since it’s completion in 1931, it has been hit thousands of times by lightning. However, because it was constructed with lightning rods, fire disasters have been averted.

Lightning can be a powerful, awesome sight during any thunderstorm. But while it’s a beautiful thing to behold, it can also be extremely dangerous. If you are well prepared for lightning storms and any associated power outages, you can rest a little easier. Watch if you must, but be sure to enjoy the light show from the safety a secure building, and stay indoors if at all possible until the storm passes.


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