Go Greased Lightning! Fast Facts About Lightning

Although it’s highly doubtful that grease could ever make lightning even faster, it’s still such a fun thing to say. Of course, everything about lightning, from how fast it is, its composition, even its different types are all pretty fun to think about.

In its most basic, lightning is basically just electric discharge in the sky. This discharge is created by an electrical imbalance between the earth and storm clouds. While some lightning does find its way down to the ground, most lightning strikes occur inside the safety of clouds.

Storm clouds are primed for lightning because of the negative charge it has, thanks to particles of rain, snow, or ice all colliding and creating static energy. Back on the ground, the earth itself is positively charged. This imbalance is then remedied by a current that passes between the two charges, connecting the earth and the sky in a blaze of glorious lightning.

Beautiful as it is, however, lightning is also very dangerous: on average, lightning strikes kill more people in the country than other natural phenomena like typhoons or even tornadoes. Talk about bad luck!

To give you an idea of how powerful a lightning strike can be: the air around a flash of lightning can be five times hotter than the sun. The heat is enough to rapidly expand the air around it, creating thunder that could be heard for miles around.

But How Fast is Lightning?

lightning piercing the sky
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One of the common misconceptions about lightning is that it’s a solid piece of light that travels down to earth from the heavens, which is why people tend to assume that the measurement of the speed of lightning is easily measured.

Lightning is less a solid rod that falls, but rather a series of particles that grows and discharges in steps.

However, it does start from a cloud, traveling through the air and striking the ground at an extremely fast speed (although it’s still so much less than the speed of light). Lightning begins as a ‘leader’, the first stroke of a lightning discharge. This leader lengthens by around 30 meters every 50 microseconds, or one-millionth of a second, with each lengthening taking around a microsecond to happen. Although the whole process happens in steps and isn’t technically seamless, it happens so fast that the human eye perceives it as a single, fluid motion.

The leader makes contact with air molecules and electrons, creating a tube of ionized air. This is accelerated by a powerful electric field generated by the voltage difference between the earth and the sky. Once it hits the ground, a return stroke can happen, releasing much more energy than the leader did. Lightning strikes can have one return stroke, or multiple ones in a row, all of which happening in milliseconds.

It’s this return stroke that people perceive, which means that lightning travels at around 320,000,000 feet per second, or 220,000,000 miles per hour. While mind-bogglingly fast, it’s still only about a third of the speed of light.

Positive/Negative Lightning

red lightning
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Although there are different kinds of lightning (which we’ll talk about later), most cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can either be positive or negative, depending on the direction of its electrical current. Most of the lightning people see are negative lightning.

Positive lightning, however, is much more powerful than its negative counterpart. On average, positive lightning bolts carry around 400,000 amperes of energy, which is more than ten times the average 30,000 amperes of negative lightning. Positive lightning also occurs from the ground up, making them all the more dangerous and unpredictable.

Different Kinds of Lighting

Contrary to popular belief there are actually three types of lightning:

  • Cloud-to-Ground Lightning: technically less common than the other types, it is, however, the most easily understood, thanks to the ease of how we observe it. This type of lightning originates from a thundercloud and strikes the earth (although it can also occur in reverse).
  • Cloud-to-Cloud: a type of lightning that occurs between two different thunder clouds
  • Intracloud: a type of lightning that happens inside a single thunder cloud.

Of the three types, there are several other sub-types of lightning:

  • Forked Lightning: one of the most common types of lightning, forked lightning gets its name from the way it forks and branches as it moves down from the sky.
  • Bead Lightning: A relatively rare type of lightning, bead lightning looks like a lightning bolt that segments itself into short sections that are bright. 
  • Staccato Lightning: appears as a single, very fast, and very bright flash with a load of branching and forking.
  • Ribbon Lightning: often happens during thunderstorms and high crosswinds. It has multiple strokes that flow from one side to another because of the winds. 
  • Heat Lightning: a lightning flash that doesn’t seem to be accompanied by thunder. However, this is a misnomer: all lightning produces thunder, but if you don’t hear it, that means that the lightning occurred so far away from you that the sound waves dissipated long before it reached your ears.

In recent years, scientists have observed and confirmed a type of lightning that shoots up from the ground and into the sky. This happens when the positive charge in the earth is stronger than the negative charge in the sky, with the leader stroke happening from the ground.

Another type of lightning that was once thought to be a myth is red lightning. Also called a sprite, red lightning bolts occur in the upper atmosphere, high above thunderstorm bringing cumulonimbus clouds. It was first reported in 1730, but it was only photographically confirmed 259 years later in 1989 when scientists from the University of Minnesota accidentally captured the image of a sprite using a low-light camera.

Not-So-Fun Facts About Lightning

Lightning terrorising the city
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It’s beautiful, scary, but dangerous: lightning strikes account for more than 2,000 deaths worldwide, with hundreds more being injured and living out the rest of their days with various symptoms like weakness, memory loss, numbness, dizziness, and other severe effects (sadly, no superpowers!).

A person struck by lightning can suffer severe third-degree burns and cardiac arrest; however, despite the high death toll, 9 out of 10 people struck by lightning will survive. On average, a person has about a 1 in 218,106 chance of being struck by lightning at least once in their lifetime.

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