I was on my incredibly delayed flight from Charlotte, NC to La Guardia here in NYC, when the pilot came on the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached out altitude”–blah blah blah, mostly smooth ride, but then: “We’re going to be passing by some pretty big thunderstorms, so if you look out the right-hand side of the plane, you’ll see some lightning shows.”
I have always been a window seat person. I tend not to use the restroom on flights (seriously, I’ve flown across multiple continents without using the bathroom), I don’t need to be on the aisle, I don’t want to be readily available to talk to a flight attendant if need be, etc. I like having a wall to sleep against; I like smooshing my face against the window when we take off and land; if it’s night and we fly over ANYTHING THAT HAS LIGHTS I appreciate being able to see it and secretly squeal about it. Needless to say, I was on top of that lightning show.
The way lightning works is, simply, this: it oppositely charges the top and bottom of a cloud. How does it do this? I will try to explain it in my limited scientific knowledge and terminology, but forgive me, scientists, if I get something wrong. Lightning requires precipitation and causes a lot of drafts of wind, mainly updrafts and downdrafts (this is all happening within a single cloud, to narrow it down). So the updrafts are drawing water–duh–upwards through the cloud, while the downdrafts are drawing lightly frozen water–duh–downwards. The water from the top of the cloud is frozen because the altitude levels at the tops of clouds are well above the freezing line in the atmosphere. So a big circle is created within a cloud: water gets drawn upwards by the updrafts, freezes at the top of the cloud, gets drawn downwards to the bottom of the cloud.
But how is the electrical charge created, you might be asking? (You’re probably not.) When rising water particles smack into falling frozen particles, negative ions get shaved off of the rising particles and collect on the falling particles. This creates a negative charge at the base of the cloud, and a positive charge at the top of the cloud. We’re all aware that opposites attract, in things like love and color but mainly in science. So now that the ends of the cloud are oppositely charged, they start trying to connect to each other. They drive at each other pretty continually–but the atmosphere is really insulated, so it takes a lot of build up to finally break through and connect. But when that happens, we finally get LIGHTNING.
Now, we’ve all heard the story of Benjamin Franklin tying a key onto a kite and sending it up into a thunderstorm (Which I think is hoax, right? Didn’t history establish that was kind of wrong as a story? Anyway.), but I had never heard of this guy and he obviously deserves recognition. G. W. Richmann, a Swedish physicist, completed Franklin’s purported first experimental plan to discover lightning. In a thunderstorm in Russia in July of 1753, Richmann stood on an electrical stand and held an iron rod in his hand (yes, he did that). He had placed a wire on the ground, held up by a wax candle (insulation!), and hypothesized that a spark would jump between the iron rod and the grounded wire. And he was right! It did. And then Richmann was struck by a bolt of lightning and DIED. Seriously.
So that’s your flash lesson on lightning. If you’d like to read about it more and in probably way more correct terms, I got all my information from these two sources: source 1; source 2. Also, check out this hilariously simple animation of what goes into lightning striking a tree or something similar.