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10 lesser known facts about Lightning

Lightning over water Photo
From the Greeks to the Norse and Shinto to the Hindu mythology, lightning has been a sign of wrath in almost all cultures. Both feared and revered, lightning is the symbol of power and authority and even the famous Harry Potter carries this symbol on his forehead. While the clap of thunder that accompanies lightning can startle anybody easily, one cannot undermine the spookiness that a bolt of lightning can bring to a dark night with some strong winds blowing. Whether we speak of stories of mythology or a scary movie, lightning manages to add its own dimension every time. 

Here’s adding a little more to your know how about lightning.

  1. Carrying almost 300KV of energy, a spark of lightning can raise the temperature of air to about 50,000 Fahrenheit, that’s about 27,700 degree Celsius. The surface of the Sun is around 5500 degrees Celsius. So, with every bolt of lightning, we, temporarily, have the temperature of 5 Suns striking the Earth. Luckily, these high temperatures stay for just a few milli-seconds and not long enough to burn up the Earth. However, these high energy shots coming from the sky are sufficient to light a tree of fire instantly and are the starting points of many a forest fires and the destruction that follows after.

2.  ‘Lightning does not strike the same place twice’ is just a myth.  Rather the opposite seems to be true, especially for tall, pointed, isolated structures. The famous  Empire State Building in New York City is hit nearly 100 times a year and there are many photos of this sight that you will find on the internet.

If you are living in a tall rise, there is no need to panic though, since such buildings are equipped with lightning conductors that allow lightning to pass straight to the ground with harming the residents. Never the less, if you are out in the open, do not try to tempt fate by occupying the spot that has just been hit by lightning.

 3.   If conditions are right, and all the necessary ingredients (like silica or quartz) present, lightning
can fuse silica to form glass. These amazing structures are called Fulgurites and are incredibly beautiful and delicate, with thin glass tubular interiors covered with sand outside, generally found in the branched out shape as lightning itself.  You can own a piece of this natural beauty by paying Science Mall USA a sum close of $300 or if you have some budgetary concerns, you can also choose a fulgurite pendant or ear-rings for around $100. Hunting one such structure down should also not be very difficult, for you can find lots of educational websites speaking about where to find Fulgurites.

Lichtenberg figure. Image credit:
4.  The fascinating shape of the lightning bolt running through an insulating material is called a Lichtenberg figure. This figure, was first discovered by German physicist Georg Lichtenberg in 1777, when he was attempting to learn about the nature of positive and negative electric fields of lightning. Little did Mr. Lichtenberg know that he was laying the foundation for modern day plasma physics.

These figures are quite popular for the fractal pattern that they leave behind. If you are looking for more information on you can find it here.   

But insulating materials are not the only one to get these Lichtenberg figures. People who have been hit by lightning and survived to tell the tale also carry these fascinating shapes on their body. Called, ‘lightning flowers’, these shapes are likely to be caused due to capillary rupture beneath the skin but are definitely a horrid reminder of what the person has gone through.

5. Although lightening forms some cool patterns and, fictionally speaking, may even bestow supernatural abilities in people it strikes, in reality, it is often life threatening. With temperatures that are 5 times as much as the surface of the Sun, a direct lightning strike can leave a person charred, boiled and very very dead. More often people who get struck die instantaneously of a cardiac arrest. And if they do survive, they live with irreparable neurological and psychological damage. A study found out that many patients of lightning injury suffer from motor paralysis of upper extremities which can take a few days to recover. However, psychological effects such as hyperirritability, high levels of anxiety, attention deficit and post traumaticstress disorder remain with these patients for extended periods of time.

6.   While old Japanese folklore has spoken about how mushrooms seem to surprisingly grow well
Mushrooms Image credit:
during a thunder storm, it took modern day research to finally say that this may be in fact true. A single bolt of lightning is known to be fatal and can easily char the fungi or even a complete human being, but a weakened charge that travels through the ground can result in an increase in mushroom production.

Scientists are working to come up with technology that will allow farmers to simulate this artificial lightning. Similar experiments done with radishes have also borne similar results and so a small bolt of electricity seems to be doing the trick for the farmers.  So, if you have been thinking about having a bountiful mushroom crop, think about charging up a few things around and see how well the mushrooms grow.

7.  A Superbolt is a powerful and unusually bright lightning bolt. These occur once in every million lightning strikes on Earth but are said to be very common on Jupiter. Yes, lightning does occur on other planets as well and there is evidence to support that lightning has been seen on Venus and Saturn as well.  Lightning on another planet is an interesting piece of information for scientists, since the energy is lightning can be the causative factor that can break compounds or fuse them together in surprising ways, some of which might also be responsible for supporting life.

An interesting bit of information about lightning on Venus is that it originates in clouds that are made up of sulphuric acid. Definitely something to remember for the future, when we manage to put up a few people on the planet and start colonising it.

8.   If you are not bothered by lightning that strikes outdoors while you sit comfortably inside your room and read this post, there is something that you should really know. People have been struck by lightning indoors as well. How you ask? Well, these were people who managed to touch a good conductor while it was lightning outside. Plumbing pipes or telephone wires that occupy most walls of a building and are more than happy to carry the bolt of lightning with them and although your room might seem like a safe place to hide, it can actually be a mesh of electricity within which you are sitting insulated. So, do stay away from all sorts of metal when its lightning outside.

9.  Lightning helps transferring genes into the cell.  Well, this is not something that you can take quite literally, in your case, since lightning will only leave you charred and not the recipient of some mutant genes but in case of bacteria, this is quite the truth.  Scientists are able to transfer new genes to bacteria (called transformation) by giving them a small electric shock in the lab.

While this is one of the methods of creating transformants (transformed cells) that researchers use in labs on an everyday basis, a study published in 2001 showed that this occurs naturally too and bacteria can get transformed due to lightning discharges in the soil. Just like, we mentioned that lightning can create or destroy compounds in the environment, this study has shown that lightning might have also aided the evolution of bacteria along the way.

10.   Harvesting the energy from Lightning:

A single bolt of lightning carries approximately 5 billion joules of power, which is sufficient to power a regular household for about a month. Our Earth receives about 1.5 million flashes of lightning every day. This translates to somewhere around a quadrillion joules of power available on an everyday basis, if we manage to capture it all. While this might be technically unfeasible at this point in time, it does offer to potentially be a plentiful resource of energy for one and all.

Some labs have every tried to charge a smartphone using simulated lightning and found that its batteries charge up in a matter of seconds. We can only wonder how quick charging electric cars can be and how revolutionary the technique will be in helping us rid our dependence on fossil fuels.

Alternate Energy Holdings Inc. (AEHI), is testing a method to capture energy from lightning and introduce it for everyday use. However, before this can be commercially feasible, we need a more reliable model to predict where lightning is likely to hit so that we can set up some kind of lightning capture farms.


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