Bolts from the Blue: The Enigma of Lightning

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Bolts from the Blue: The Enigma of Lightning

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In April 2020 a huge flash of lightning sped through the skies over Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The single flash covered a distance of 768 km (477 miles) 60 km longer than the previous record.

Clare Nullis, speaking for the World Meteorological Organization, said: “That trip by plane would have taken a couple of hours. In this case, the distance was covered in a matter of seconds.”

Not surprising as lightning travels at roughly 200,000 miles an hour.

In June of the same year, during a thunderstorm over Uruguay and Argentina, a single flash of lightning lasted for 17.1 seconds, another new record. Thankfully both of these mega-flashes were cloud-to-cloud lightning, never touching the ground, and thus posed no threat to human life. But scientists warn us that as the Earth continues to grow ever warmer, so the length and duration of lightning strikes will increase.

There are, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approximately 44 lightning strikes per second somewhere on the Earth. Each bolt of lightning carries something like 100 million volts of electricity, enough to power the average house for four months so would it not be possible to harness this majestic clean and natural source of power?

It’s a possibility that has occurred to many scientists ever since Benjamin Franklin tried to electrocute himself by flying his kite into a thunderstorm. Luckily the lightning decided not to strike his metal key attached to a thread or one of the Founding Fathers would have been fried.

Since then there have been many rather more serious attempts and in France scientists have managed to capture a tiny amount from artificially generated lightning but most now concede that it is impossible, certainly with today’s technology.

Firstly about 75% of all lightning strikes are cloud-to-cloud which would be impossible to capture: of the remaining 25% most occur over tropical rainforests, or in remote mountainous areas. However, the major problems are that the majority of the electrical power contained in a lightning bolt dissipates before the strike hits the earth. What does then arrive is mainly in the form of heat – up to 20,000° C which would be sufficient to melt almost anything designed to capture it.

Bhargava Marripati at Pexels

After several years of trying, the US company Alternate Energy Holdings finally gave up. Said a spokesman, “Quite frankly we just couldn’t make it work.”

So it looks as though at least for now we will not be able to harness all that abundant natural energy.

In the meantime, the major myth about lightning is that it never hits the same place twice. In fact, the Empire State Building is struck on average 23 times per year. And perhaps we could also ask US Park Ranger Roy Cleveland Sullivan. Roy works in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia where he has been struck by lightning seven times – and despite having his hair set on fire three times, he has survived every one of them.

He is now, according to the Guinness Book of Records the man most hit by lightning and is known to his colleagues as Roy the Lightning Rod.

Happy Ali wonders if he has lots of surplus energy.

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