The Deadly Nature & Mind-blowing Beauty of Lightning

Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. Besides thunderstorms, lightning has been seen in extremely intense forest fires, volcanic eruptions, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, and in large hurricanes. At any given moment, there are about 1,800 thunderstorms happening over the Earth. It’s estimated that 100 lightning flashes occur each second somewhere around the globe, totaling to about 8 million lightning flashes per day.

Harness Lightning For Electricity

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Since the late 1980s there have been several attempts to investigate the possibility of harvesting energy from lightning. A leading authority on lightning, Dr. Martin A. Uman, told The New York Times, that the energy in a thunderstorm is comparable to that of an atomic bomb, but trying to harvest the energy of lightning from the ground is “hopeless.” Someone will figure it out someday, but for now here’s a look at the deadly powerful nature of lightning.

St. Elmo’s Fire – Night Vision

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St. Elmo’s fire sometimes looks similar to lightning but it is a separate meteorological phenomenon. Although called “fire,” St. Elmo’s fire is a luminous plasma that can glow a bright blue or violet. It can also appear like an eerie fire burning at the top of tall, pointed structures like ship masts or aircraft wings. It has also been reported on leaves, grass, and tips of cattle horns during a stampede.

Unlike the thunderous boom which follows lightning, St. Elmo’s fire can be heard “singing” on an aircraft’s radio, a frying hiss or buzzing sound running up and down the musical scale. It is often as a precursor to a lightning strike.

St. Elmo’s Fire

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Sailors would regard St. Elmo’s fire with religious awe, an omen of heavenly intervention. It was named after St. Erasmus of Formiae, the patron saint of sailors.  It has been recorded over the centuries, starting with the ancient Greeks, Julius Caesar, Columbus and Magellan. After Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod, the phenomenon was seen more on land, sparking fear as the ghostly blue flames inspired stories of spirits and hauntings.


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Ball lightning is a bizarre phenomenon with reports of sightings going back to the ancient Greeks. The most common type of lightning is streak lightning, but cloud-to-ground lightning poses the greatest threat to life and property. Lightning can be triggered by many events ranging from thermonuclear explosions to launching rockets like the Space Shuttle Challenger or Apollo 12.


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A bolt of lightning can travel at a speed of 100,000 mph. The atmospheric discharge of electricity is hot enough to fuse soil or sand into glass channels. This deadly weather phenomena starts fires, strikes trees and other tall object, or can zap a low lying area like water. During your lifetime, you have a 1 in 600,000 chance of being struck by lightning. In the United States, an average of 58 people are killed each year by lightning. About 250 people every year survive after being hit by lightning, but most live with permanent injuries.

Cloud Flashes

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When lightning is flashing within the clouds, you can sometimes see visible channels that reach into the air around the storm. That is called cloud-to-air lightning or is referred to as “Anvil Crawler.” Lightning can also travel from cloud-to-cloud. When the lightning seems embedded within a cloud and seems to light up as sheet of luminosity during the flash, that is called sheet lighting or intra-cloud lightning. Spider lightning is long, horizontal traveling flashes and is most often seen on the underside of stratiform clouds. Many people have seen heat lightning, but say they do not hear the thunder. However, the thunder was simply too far in the distance to be heard. Anytime there is lightning, there is also thunder.

Cloud-to-sea Lightning

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Lightning can be one of the most striking visions in nature, no pun intended. Cloud-to-sea lightning strikes are mesmerizing when seen from land and can hold a person spellbound in their tracks. However, that might make you the tallest object to be struck next. Water is an excellent conductor, so it’s smart to stay away from the sea, lakes and pools during a lightning storm. In a thunderstorm, mariners are at risk from that cloud-to-sea lightning. Besides the gusty winds, high, choppy waves, warnings are issued to expect cloud-to-sea lightning strikes and heavy downpours. Boaters are encouraged to seek safe harbor until the storm passes as well as to insure the crew is wearing life jackets.


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Lightning strikes consist of 3 to 4 individual strokes, but may have more. Each re-strike is separated by 40 to 50 milliseconds, causing a “strobe light” effect. Of these multiple individual strokes, the first is the strongest. Each successive stroke usually re-uses the discharge channel taken by the stroke before it. The rumbling of thunder is prolonged by the re-strikes.

Mind-blowing Beauty

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Lightning traveling through open air emits white light, but can appear as different colors depending on atmospheric conditions. Due to moisture, haze, dust and such, distant lightning can appear red or orange the same way the setting sun does. When lightning strikes an object, the lightning channel is often seen as a reddish pink or orange color. Other times in photos, lightning looks colored because the wrong white balance was used on the camera or film. It can be difficult to capture lightning at all, nevertheless to achieve the perfect white balance when it’s pitch black outside.

Upper Atmospheric Lightning

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Although rarely spotted with the naked eye, there are very special, rarely seen lightning types like red sprites, blue jets, and elves. Sprites are wide, weak flashes above a thunderstorm. Sprite lightning appears like a giant blood-red colored jellyfish with long hanging light-blue tentacles. Blue jets are narrower and shoot out from the tops of thunderstorms. Blue jets are brighter than sprites and were first recorded from the space shuttle. Elves look dimmer and flatter, glowing for only one millisecond but with a 250 mile diameter. Not surprisingly, elves were also first recorded during a space shuttle mission.

Scary Powerful Strikes to Towers, Buildings

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Typically during thunderstorms, 80% of flashes are in-cloud and 20% are cloud-to-ground. Buildings, towers, and other high points are often struck by lightning, since electricity seeks the path of least and lowest resistance. Cloud-to-ground lightning comes from the sky down, but the part you see comes from the ground up. Lightning can zigzag and strike the ground or close to the tallest object. In fact, it can strike the same spot more than once.

Double Lightning

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Lightning is an impressive force of nature. It is as beautiful as it is dangerous. The brilliant white-blue flash of lightning is caused by its extreme heat. A lightning bolt is hotter than the surface of the sun. Double lightning strikes, double the eye candy but also double the danger.

Mulitple Strikes & Long Exposure Photos

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Cloud-to-ground lightning comes in different supercharged flavors. Bead lightning is relatively rare. It’s a type of cloud-to-ground lightning which appears to break up into a string of short, bright sections, which last longer than the usual discharge channel. Ribbon lightning looks somewhat like ribbon. It happens in thunderstorms with high cross winds and multiple return strokes. The wind blows each successive return stroke slightly to one side of the previous return stroke, showing a ribbon effect. Staccato lightning has a short-duration stroke, appearing as a single very bright flash and often has considerable branching. Cloud-to-ground lightning that exhibits branching is informally called forked lightning.

Rocket Lightning

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Rocket lightning is typically horizontal and at cloud base. A luminous channel appears to advance through the air with visually resolvable speed, often intermittently. The movement resembles the movement of a rocket. It is one of the rarest types of cloud discharge.

Volcanic Triggered Lightning

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Volcanically triggered lightning is not something we see often . . . at least not before hell broke loose in Iceland. There are three types of volcanic lighting. Lightning can be triggered during extremely large volcanic eruptions which eject gases and material into the atmosphere. The intermediate type comes from a volcano’s vents, sometimes 1.8 miles long. Then there is the small spark type lightning; it’s much shorter and lasts only a few milliseconds.

Unleashed Fury of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano

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Scientists don’t know exactly how lightning is created in an ash cloud. It is thought that as the ash plume rotates, similar to a tornado, it can spawn dust devils or waterspouts which gather the electric charges to form the lightning. Lightning and lava together are like nature’s mind-boggling fireworks display. The 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull disrupted air travel over western and northern Europe for six days. The April 14th eruption ejected 140,000,000 cubic yards of tephra as the plume rose explosively to about 30,000 feet into the air. Hundreds of volcanic lightning photos were captured.

Sensational Volcanic-Lightning

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Volcanic triggered lightning looks like some over-the-top special effects for a disaster movie. Lighting, fire, ice, and ash all flashed, providing people with a once-in-a-lifetime front row seat for the devastation. Sound effects of the lightning, like during a thunderstorm, ranged in decibels and length according to the length of the lightning spark. The shorter volcanic triggered lightning sounded something like rifle shots, while mile-long bolts produced long rumblings.

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