A bolt of lightning is one of the most beautifully terrifying things created by nature

Lightning is one of those things that people love to look at but would be terrified to get close to. The threat of getting struck by lightning is so low that some people equate winning the lottery with the chances of being hit by a bolt of lightning.

The natural electric phenomenon is deadly, and not just because if you get struck by it, you’ll most likely die from the shock. When the bolt hits anything, it hits with a temperature that’s hotter than the surface of the sun, and not only that, it also disperses its power outwards when it makes contact with anything.

What is lightning

Lightning is a big shock of electricity in the sky. The discharge caused by imbalances in storm clouds and the ground causes a sort of conduction between the two that creates that giant, blazing hot bolt from the earth into the clouds.

The high voltage of the bolt happens so quickly between the earth and the clouds that the word has been used to describe swift speed as often as it has been used to describe the physical science reaction itself. The flash of the bolt lights up the sky in a way that looks like a huge spark of light across the horizon.

Dominik QN / Unsplash

What starts the process

When water from the earth gets hot enough, from the sun and temperatures, some of the molecules manage to escape. After the escape, those same molecules end up turning into water vapor and rise into the earth’s atmosphere.

When the heated up molecules turn back into liquid, gravity rears its ugly head, and the liquid begins falling back down to earth. This is the water cycle, and eventually is what creates rain and clouds. When this process gets going, that’s when the lightning has the perfect environment to thrive.

What is lightning?

The storm clouds that are created by the water cycle then begin to act as capacitors, an electrical energy storing device, and start saving the charges needed to create the lightning. It’s not totally agreed upon, but one theory is that it all depends on the water cycle.

When the molecules that evaporated make their way up and collide with the molecules that are falling back down in the form of rain, snow, or sleet, it ends up knocking around electrons, creating a separation in negative and positive charges in the cloud. This creates the electric field needed for lightning to form.

The different types of lightning

Cloud to cloud lightning happens when the lightning dances around in the clouds without ever reaching the ground. Cloud to ground lightning is when a strike hits the earth.

Upward moving lightning is when the charge starts on the ground and ends up in the clouds, which is contradictory to how lightning is made.

Dry lightning occurs when there’s no precipitation, and sheet lightning is when the charge seems to cover the entire sky without a bolt present. The different types of lightning all depend on the process in which it was created, and no two lightning strikes are the same, even though the myth of lightning never striking the same place twice is just that; a myth.

What happens when lightning strikes

Every year, around 2,000 people will die because of lightning. The immense heat and electrical charge of lightning are so dangerous that those that survive being hit are often plagued with chronic ailments such as memory loss, dizziness, and numbness.

The cause of death from lightning strikes is either cardiac arrest of severe burns, but luckily, 90 percent of people that get hit by the crazy bolt end up surviving to tell the tale. The chances of getting struck by lightning are slim, but it’s better to stay out of the storm just in case.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101: