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How lightning strikes?

Topics Covered:
1. Important Geophysical phenomena such as earthquakes, Tsunami, Volcanic activity, cyclone etc., geographical features and their location- changes in critical geographical features (including water-bodies and ice-caps) and in flora and fauna and the effects of such changes.

 

How lightning strikes?

 

What to study?

For Prelims and mains: What is lightning, and how does it strike?

 

Context: As per IMD, With 9 lakh lightning strikes between April 1 and July 31 this year, Odisha recorded the highest number of lightning strikes in the country, while Jammu and Kashmir recorded the least with about 20,000 strikes.

 

Significance:

This is the first time the weather monitoring body has released the data on total lightening strikes across the country. The date for the months of April till July was compiled by IMD’s Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROSPC).

The report was prepared as part of a three-year study period under Lightning Resilient India campaign.

 

Key findings:

  1. Most number of deaths due to lightning strikes were reported from Uttar Pradesh.
  2. The highest intensity lightning strikes were observed in Chhotanagpur plateau in East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. The area also received the maximum number of strikes for a district.
  3. The number of lightning days (number of days when lightning strikes happened) across India has been increasing every month. July witnessed the highest number of lightning days, especially in the latter half due to the onset of monsoon.

 

What is lightning?

It is a very rapid — and massive — discharge of electricity in the atmosphere, some of which is directed towards the Earth’s surface.

These discharges are generated in giant moisture-bearing clouds that are 10-12 km tall.

 

How does it strike?

  1. The base of these clouds typically lies within 1-2 km of the Earth’s surface, while their top is 12-13 km away. Temperatures towards the top of these clouds are in the range of minus 35 to minus 45 degrees Celsius.
  2. As water vapour moves upward in the cloud, the falling temperature causes it to condense. Heat is generated in the process, which pushes the molecules of water further up.
  3. As they move to temperatures below zero degrees celsius, the water droplets change into small ice crystals. They continue to move up, gathering mass — until they are so heavy that they start to fall to Earth.
  4. This leads to a system in which, simultaneously, smaller ice crystals are moving up and bigger crystals are coming down.
  5. Collisions follow, and trigger the release of electrons — a process that is very similar to the generation of sparks of electricity. As the moving free electrons cause more collisions and more electrons, a chain reaction ensues.
  6. This process results in a situation in which the top layer of the cloud gets positively charged, while the middle layer is negatively charged. The electrical potential difference between the two layers is huge — of the order of a billion to 10 billion volts. In very little time, a massive current, of the order of 100,000 to a million amperes, starts to flow between the layers.
  7. An enormous amount of heat is produced, and this leads to the heating of the air column between the two layers of the cloud. This heat gives the air column a reddish appearance during lightning. As the heated air column expands, it produces shock waves that result in thunder.

 

How does this current reach the Earth from the cloud?

While the Earth is a good conductor of electricity, it is electrically neutral. However, in comparison to the middle layer of the cloud, it becomes positively charged. As a result, about 15%-20% of the current gets directed towards the Earth as well. It is this flow of current that results in damage to life and property on Earth.

There is a greater probability of lightning striking tall objects such as trees, towers or buildings. Once it is about 80-100 m from the surface, lightning tends to change course towards these taller objects. This happens because air is a poor conductor of electricity, and electrons that are travelling through air seek both a better conductor and the shortest route to the relatively positively charged Earth’s surface.

Sources: the Hindu.