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Safety at Sea: A Guide to Lightning and Atmospheric Electricity

Written by: John Maguire

Lightning, the thunderbolt from mythology, has long been feared as the great weapon of the gods. The Greeks both marveled and feared lightning as it was hurled by Zeus. For the Vikings, lightning was produced by Thor as his hammer struck an anvil while riding his chariot across the clouds. In the East, early statues of Buddha show him carrying a thunderbolt with arrows at each end. Indian tribes in North America believed that lightning was due to the flashing feathers of a mystical bird whose flapping wings produced the sound of thunder.

Today, scientific rather than mystical techniques are used to explain lightning with experimental procedures replacing intuitive concepts. Yet, we remain in awe of lightning which still shines with its mystery, and rightly so. Each year, lightning is responsible for the deaths of a hundred or so people, injuries to several hundred more, and millions of dollars in property damage, in the United States alone.

Benjamin Franklin performed the first systematic, scientific study of lightning during the second half of the 18th century. Prior to that time, electrical science had developed to the point where positive and negative charges could be separated. Electrical machines could, by rubbing together two different materials, store the charges in primitive capacitors called Leyden Jars from which sparks could be generated and observed.

While others had previously noted the similarity between laboratory sparks and lightning, Franklin was the first to design an experiment which conclusively proved the electrical nature of lightning. In his experiment, he theorized that clouds are electrically charged, from which it follows that lightning must also be electrical. The experiment involved Franklin standing on an electrical stand, holding an iron rod with one hand to obtain an electrical discharge between the other hand and the ground. If the clouds were electrically charged then sparks would jump between the iron rod and a grounded wire, in this case, held by an insulating wax candle.

This experiment was successfully performed by Thomas Francois D'Alibard of France in May 1752 when sparks were observed to jump from the iron rod during a thunderstorm. G. W. Richmann, a Swedish physicist working in Russia during July 1753, proved that thunderclouds contain electrical charge, and was killed when lightning struck him.

Before Franklin accomplished his original experiment, he thought of a better way to prove his hypothesis through the use of a kite. The kite took the place of the iron rod, since it could reach a greater elevation and could be flown anywhere. During a Pennsylvania thunderstorm in 1752 the most famous kite in history flew with sparks jumping from a key tied to the bottom of damp kite string to an insulating silk ribbon tied to the knuckles of Franklin's hand. Franklin's grounded body provided a conducting path for the electrical currents responding to the strong electric field buildup in the storm clouds.

In addition to showing that thunderstorms contain electricity, by measuring the sign of the charge delivered through the kite apparatus, Franklin was able to infer that while the clouds were overhead, the lower part of the thunderstorm was generally negatively charged.

Little significant progress was made in understanding the properties of lightning until the late 19th century when photography and spectroscopic tools became available for lightning research.

Lightning current measurements were made in Germany by Pockels (1897-1900) who analyzed the magnetic field induced by lightning currents to estimate the current values. Time-resolved photography was used by many experimenters during the late 19th century to identify individual lightning strokes that make up a lightning discharge to the ground.

Lightning research in modern times dates from the work of C.T.R. Wilson who was the first to use electric field measurements to estimate the structure of thunderstorm charges involved in lightning discharges. Wilson, who won the Nobel Prize for the invention of the Cloud Chamber, made major contributions to our present understanding of lightning.

Research continued at a steady pace until the late 1960's when lightning research became particularly active. This increased interest was motivated both by the danger of lightning to aerospace vehicles and solid state electronics used in computers and other devices as well as by the improved measurement and observational capabilities which were made possible by advancing technology.

As the ice particles within a cloud (called hydrometeors) grow and interact, they collide, fracture and break apart. It is thought that the smaller particles tend to acquire positive charge, while the larger particles acquire more negative charge. These particles tend to separate under the influences of updrafts and gravity until the upper portion of the cloud acquires a net positive charge and the lower portion of the cloud becomes negatively charged. This separation of charge produces enormous electrical potential both within the cloud and between the cloud and ground. This can amount to millions of volts, and eventually the electrical resistance in the air breaks down and a flash begins. Lightning, then, is an electrical discharge between positive and negative regions of a thunderstorm.

A lightning flash is composed of a series of strokes with an average of about four. The length and duration of each lightning stroke vary, but typically average about 30 microseconds. (The average peak power per stroke is about 1012 watts.)


Sound is generated along the length of the lightning channel as the atmosphere is heated by the electrical discharge to the order of 20,000 degrees C (3 times the temperature of the surface of the sun). This compresses the surrounding clear air producing a shock wave, which then decays to an acoustic wave as it propagates away from the lightning channel.

Although the flash and resulting thunder occur at essentially the same time, light travels at 186,000 miles in a second, almost a million times the speed of sound. Sound travels at the relatively snail pace of one-fifth of a mile in the same time. Thus the flash, if not obscured by clouds, is seen before the thunder is heard. By counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder and dividing by 5, an estimate of the distance to the strike (in miles) can be made.

When moisture-laden warm air is heated, it begins to rise. As these currents or bubbles of warm moist air rise higher in the atmosphere, both the surrounding air pressure and temperature decrease. The air bubbles expand, causing cooling of the moisture which eventually condenses to form clouds. As the cloud cools further, more moisture condenses and the water droplets making up the cloud grow and merge until some become so large and heavy that the air currents within the cloud can no longer support them. These water droplets begin to fall as rain.


Air currents in cumulonimbus clouds can be very violent. Even when lightning is not produced, pellets of ice may grow by the accumulation of liquid droplets. When the updrafts are very strong, the growing ice pellets can be suspended for long periods, allowing them to grow larger. Eventually some may become too large for a given updraft and begin to fall as hail. Diameters are typically 5 to 10 mm, although a l40 mm hailstone has been recorded.

Types of Lightning:

Cloud-to-ground lightning is the most damaging and dangerous form of lightning. Although not the most common type, it is the one which is best understood. Most flashes originate near the lower-negative charge center and deliver negative charge to Earth. However, an appreciable minority of flashes carry positive charge to Earth. These positive flashes often occur during the dissipating stage of a thunderstorm's life. Positive flashes are also more common as a percentage of total ground strikes during the winter months.

Intra-cloud lightning is the most common type of discharge. This occurs between oppositely charged centers within the same cloud. Usually the process takes place within the cloud and looks from the outside of the cloud like a diffuse brightening which flickers. However, the flash may exit the boundary of the cloud and a bright channel, similar to a cloud-to-ground flash, can be visible for many miles. Intracloud lightning as the name implies, occurs between charge centers in two different clouds with the discharge bridging a gap of clear air between them.

There are numerous names and descriptions of various types and forms of lightning. Some identify subcategories, and others may arise from optical illusions, appearances, or myths. Some popular terms include:


With the initial breakdown of the air in a region of strong electric fields, a streamer may begin to propagate downward toward the Earth. It moves in discrete steps of about 50 meters each and is called a stepped leader. As it grows, it creates an ionized path depositing charge along the channel, and as the stepped leader nears the Earth, a large potential difference is generated between the end of the leader and the Earth. Typically, a streamer is launched from the Earth and intercepts the descending stepped leader just before it reaches the ground. Once a connecting path is achieved, a return stroke flies up the already ionized path at close to the speed of light. This return stroke releases tremendous energy, bright light and thunder. Occasionally, where a thunderstorm grows over a tall Earth grounded object, such as a radio antenna, an upward leader may propagate from the object toward the cloud. This "ground-to-cloud" flash generally transfers a net positive charge to Earth and is characterized by upward pointing branches.

Lightning Safety

The six most common dangerous activities associated with lightning strikes, in order, are:

  1. Work or play in open fields.
  2. Boating, fishing, and swimming.
  3. Working on heavy farm or road equipment.
  4. Playing golf.
  5. Talking on the telephone.
  6. Repairing or using electrical appliances.

Lightning Safety On Water

If caught in the open during a strike and the hair on your head or neck begins to stand on end (this really happens) go inside the nearest building. If no shelter is available, crouch down immediately in the lowest possible spot and roll up in a ball with feet on the ground. (DO NOT LIE DOWN. )


  1. Check breathing and pulse.
  3. Perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
  4. Apply cardiopulmonary resuscitation.