What causes lightning?

What causes lightning?

Lightning strikes!

Have you ever got a static electricity shock? Or seen sparks when you take off your jumper? When lightning is made the same thing happens, but on a much bigger scale.

How does lightning form?

Lightning is an electric current. To make this electric current, first you need a cloud.

When the ground is hot, it heats the air above it. This warm air rises. As the air rises, water vapour cools and forms a cloud. When air continues to rise, the cloud gets bigger and bigger. In the tops of the clouds, temperature is below freezing and the water vapour turns into ice.

Now, the cloud becomes a thundercloud. Lots of small bits of ice bump into each other as they move around. All these collisions cause a build up of electrical charge.

Eventually, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges. Lighter, positively charged particles form at the top of the cloud. Heavier, negatively charged particles sink to the bottom of the cloud.

When the positive and negative charges grow large enough, a giant spark - lightning - occurs between the two charges within the cloud. This is like a static electricity sparks you see, but much bigger.

Did you know_lightning

Most lightning happens inside a cloud, but sometimes it happens between the cloud and the ground.

A build up of positive charge builds up on the ground beneath the cloud, attracted to the negative charge in the bottom of the cloud. The ground's positive charge concentrates around anything that sticks up - trees, lightning conductors, even people! The positive charge from the ground connects with the negative charge from the clouds and a spark of lightning strikes.

Go to What is lightning? to see how you can make your own lightning.

Curriculum information

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