Thunder and lightning

Posted March 1, 2009 4:02 p.m. EST

Lightning is what defines a thunderstorm. It results from the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged particles. A thunderstorm builds up a huge electrical charge as ice particles inside the storm collide and generate a static charge through friction. These particles of suspended collide as the storm’s updraft and downdraft carry them. Once the electrical charge is strong enough to travel from the cloud to the ground, a lightning bolt is created.

A lightning bolt carries as much as 1 billion volts. The air around the lightning strike is instantly heated to 50,000 degrees – five times hotter than the surface of the sun. That instantaneous heating causes the air molecules to expand so rapidly that the air is compressed, forming a shock wave similar to a sonic boom. The shock wave travels through the atmosphere, resulting in thunder. The acoustic shockwave near the lightning strike is strong enough to rupture the eardrums of those standing nearby.