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Lightning Facts

Wednesday June 25th, 2014

lightning strike over city

Learn some interesting facts about one of the most common (and dangerous) summer weather events.

Summer is officially here! Besides barbecues and trips to the beach, summer is also the peak season for lightning strikes in America. Lightning flashes more than 40 times every second somewhere on the planet, with over 25 million occurring in the US every year. Although it is one of the most dangerous natural phenomena for man, it is also one of the least understood. Check out these lightning facts so you can be prepared and have a safe summer.

What is it?

Lightning is an enormous static discharge of electricity between clouds, or between clouds and the ground. Think of a static shock on a massive scale!

How does it form?

The most common cause of lightning is changes in temperature associated with thunderstorms. But they can also be formed by forest fires, dust storms, volcanic eruptions, or even the detonation of nuclear weapons!

Where does lightning strike?

Lightning is attracted to tall, pointy objects and structures that stick up from the rest of the surrounding landscape. Avoid things like flagpoles, trees, or other tall, lonely structures if you find yourself caught in a storm.

Does it ever strike twice in the same place?

Because lightning is attracted to tall structures, it actually is common for lightning to strike the same objects over and over again. For instance, the Empire State Building in New York City is struck almost 100 times every year!

How big is a flash of lightning?

Flashes of lightning can be over 100 miles long! The longest ever recorded stretched over 118 miles in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. But the average length is closer to 5 miles and just under an inch wide. Also, shorter strikes have been seen inside clouds, with some less than 10 feet long!

What is thunder?

Thunder is actually a shock wave caused by rapidly expanding gases along a lightning strike. The sound you hear is produced by the air around a lightning bolt heating to over 50,000°F, or about five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Can I really use thunder to estimate the distance to a lightning strike?

You can! The popular myth says that counting the number of seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder will tell you the number of miles away the lightning struck. Actually, the number of seconds between the lightning flash and the thunderclap should be divided by five to give you the distance in miles.

What is fear of lightning called?

Fear of thunder or lightning is known as astraphobia, and can occur in both humans and animals! Between 15 and 30 percent of dogs suffer from astraphobia, although a variety of treatment options are available for pets and people alike.

Am I safe in my car during a thunderstorm?

Most cars are lightning-safe but not for the reason you think. It’s not the rubber tires but the metal roof that helps protect you from a strike. For this reason, it’s best to avoid convertibles (even with the top up) and bicycles during a thunderstorm.

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