Blink and You’ll Miss It The Mini Heatwave We’re All Terrified Of
Wednesday 8th July 2015 19:20 Features Longform News Posted by Charlotte

It lasts for about 10,000th of a second, it’s six times hotter than the sun, travels at 270,000mph, battered the UK last week after the heatwave and its flashes are seen fifty times a second around the world; lightning can be either brutal or rather beautiful, depending on who you speak to.

Time for a science lesson on how lightning actually works, here’s the Inside Tameside recipe for some lightning storms. Despite some beliefs, it’s not just random, there’s a set of events that occur to cause lightning. In the UK, you’ll find it more regular down south and on the south coast, in particular East Anglia, where it’s warmer, and that’s where we find step one: warm weather and humidity. Primary school science dictates that any water that’s heated evaporates, goes into the sky and forms a cloud, and that’s what the sun’s rays cause. The already-humid air rises rapidly, forming a cloud as it cools down and the water vapour in the cooler air forms ice particles, which crash into each other violently causing step two to occur: electrical charge.

During the various violent collisions of the ice particles, the lighter positively charged particles gather at the top of the cloud and the heavier negative particles make their way to the bottom. Just like magnets, opposites attract and the negatives find a positive particle to connect with, and when they connect, that’s what generates the bolt of electricity.

Step three: discharge. Some of the negative particles find positive charges in other clouds, making cloud-to-cloud lightning, lightning confined to the clouds or sometimes they find positive charges on the ground (you guessed it: cloud-to-earth lightning). This type of lightning only occurs in about a quarter of all lightning storms and the path of least resistance to ground is took by electricity (any shed-tinkerer or farm animal finding an electric fence may have found out) and such examples of positive objects on the ground include trees, a tall building and people – as two men in the Brecon Beacons tragically found out last weekend. Lightning finds its way to the British Isles’ turf around 300,000 times a year.

If you live in the Tropics, particularly in the mountainous village of Kifuka in Congo, you’ll be accustomed to seeing your area being battered by lightning. It’s officially the most struck place on Earth with around 158 strikes per square kilometre a year (Tameside, in comparison, is 103.2 square kilometres so if we upped-sticks to Congo we’ll be struck ~16,300 times a year, Ashton Arcades will see 1,896 flashes a year alone!). The strike rate for humans that find themselves at the wrath of a lightning storm in Blighty is 30-60 a year, resulting in three deaths.

The death rate is significantly lower than in the 19th century, when more people worked outside, were not protected by tall buildings and they didn’t understand lightning as much as we do in the 21st century. Back then around 19 people a year died after being struck. About 24,000 a year die globally from death by lightning strike, injuring 240,000 more people. Strike survivors can suffer a range of ailments including minor burns to brain damage.

One tip for avoiding death by lightning is to get away from all tall objects, end all mobile phone calls and stop outside sporting activities and go inside. Once inside stay away from windows, external doors and the landline. Don’t go under any trees and don’t lie on the ground. If you find yourself in the middle of a lightning storm and you notice your hair sticking up, crouch down immediately on the balls of your feet, this gives you less contact with the ground, making you more undesirable for those negative particles. Lightning does strike twice, so make sure the storm is over before emerging!

For facts and numbers regarding lightning, see this page and video from the Met Office, and America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has this myth-busting page.

Do you have any lightning pictures? Send them into [email protected] and we’ll include them on our lightning gallery!