Sunday Science Tidbit; What’s in a lightning bolt?


With all the summertime thunderstorms, I figured we’d do this week’s Sunday Science Tidbit on the different parts of lightning.

Patrick Moloney - New Bern

Lightning occurs when you have a difference in electrical charges such as a negative charge a the base of a cloud and a positive charge near the ground.

Have you ever heard thunder crackle before a big boom? What you’re hearing is the stepped leader. It can appear to be very jagged and indirect and typically branches outward toward the ground. The stepped leader develops downward at a rate of 200,000 mph with up to 10,000 individual steps. It can carry about one million volts in one microsecond (.000001 seconds)!

Now let’s focus our attention to the ground for a moment. Streamers are positive channels that rise up from the ground to meet the stepped leader about 100-300 feet in the air.. When the two connect you get the bright flash of light also known as a return stroke. The stroke of light you see actually travels from the ground to the cloud but due to the fact that it lasts a a fraction of a second, your eye cannot detect that movement and you see the opposite!

Have you ever seen a single lightning bolt flash multiple times? What you see is a dart leader making connections with any leftover energy within the same channel as the original stepped leader over and over again until the energy is used up.

So the combination of stepped and dart leaders and their return strokes are known as a stroke. All the strokes within one channel is known as a flash. The highest recorded number of strokes in one flash is 47!! Now that’s some crazy lightning!

Can’t get enough about lightning? Check out some of my other Sunday Science Tidbit’s about lightning here:

What is lightning?…

Heat Lightning myth…

~ Meteorologist Candice Boling

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