Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Lightning is an electrical current formed when warm and cold currents of air mix in a cloud, separating the particles within.
- Lightning can appear in various colors, such as white, pink, purple, blue, red, orange, and green, depending on atmospheric conditions and its distance from the ground.
- There are about seven types of lightning, including cloud-to-ground, ground-to-cloud, intracloud, intercloud, sheet lightning, and cloud-to-air.
- Rare types of lightning, such as sprites, blue jets, and gigantic jets, are usually found in large thunderstorms and can only be seen from above.
- Factors that influence the color of lightning include the concentration of moisture in the atmosphere, its distance from the ground, the storm’s distance from the viewer, and the particles in the atmosphere around it.
What color is lightning? And did you know that there are several different colors of lightning? These lightning bolts range through most of the visible color spectrum. These are the colors that the naked human eye can see.
Lightning is most often white, but can appear pink, purple, blue, red, orange, or even green. This depends on the moisture and particulate conditions in the atmosphere. Or where the lighting bolt is in relation to the ground.
We’ve all stared out of the window whilst a thunderstorm approaches. I, for one, love a good storm. As long as I’m low down and under shelter! Most of us are familiar with white-blue forks of lightning spearing down though a thunderhead cloud.
So where do the different colors come from? What color is the rarest? What can change the color of lightning?
All About Lightning!
First of all, we need to understand what lightning actually IS.
Lightning is electrical current formed when warm and cold currents of air mix in a cloud. This separates the particles in the cloud.
This usually happens in a tall, foreboding cloud like this one below- a cumulonimbus.
The Science of Lightning: Understanding its Formation
1. Cumulonimbus Clouds: The Birthplace of Lightning
Lightning normally comes from cumulonimbus clouds, otherwise known as thunderclouds/thunderheads.
These type of clouds are tall clouds that form when there is enough convective instabilities (currents of warm and cold air) and moisture within the cloud.
2. The Dance of Particles: How Lightning is Created – “The Mosh Pit“
Electrons are knocked off the ice crystals in the cloud. This makes the positively charged particles (protons) go to the top of the cloud. Whilst the negatively charged particles end up at the bottom of the cloud.
3. The Boys Run to Meet the Girls!
Just like high school seniors at the prom, opposites attract! The negatively charged particles from one side of a cloud zap over to another area of sky/ground. To meet with their heart’s desire – the positively charged particles on the other side!
4. The Charge of Light Brigade
When the negative particles from a cloud and the positive particles from the ground build up enough charge, this forms a lightning bolt that bridges the air between the cloud and the ground.
Are There Different Shapes of Lightning Bolt?
A ‘stepped leader’ lightning bolt, (one that goes from cloud to ground), forms when the negatively charged ions in the base of the cloud build up to the point they make a jump towards the positively charged ground.
Stepped leaders have a jagged shape which is like a downwards branching tree. This is because the head of the downward bolt can only sense oppositely charged particles within 50m of it.
So it is constantly spreading out trying to connect with as many particles of the opposite charge as possible.
A streamer is a lightning bolt that is coming up from the ground to the cloud.
It’s formed when the negative charge from the stepped leader encourages the positive charge from the ground upwards into the air to meet it.
The positive charges climb up any high point in the area (trees, churches, people on top of hills) to meet the stepped leader.
“The boys and girls meet. Now the dance begins!”
These lightning bolts move horizontally within and across cumulonimbus clouds. They have many branches, like a tree.
(Cumulonimbus clouds are shaped like a blacksmith’s anvil, hence the name.)
The thunder anvil crawlers produce is softer and fainter as they are further away from us. They normally happen when a storm is dying down.
They are also so slow (compared to other types of lightning!) that humans can see the path they make across the cloud.
Why Does Thunder Happen?
Thunder is the sound of the rapidly expanding superheated air moving outwards from the lightning bolt.
Lightning bolts can easily reach 30,000 – 50,000 degrees C in temperature. That’s going to make that air travel super fast, and make it super noisy. BOOM!
You can listen to some thunder here!
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How Many Types of Lightning are There?
Did you know that there are roughly 7 different types of lightning? They are:
These can be different colors, too, due to their different locations and the state of the atmosphere around them.
Why Do We Get White Lightning?
The most common color for lightning is white. This is also the hottest type of lightning and so the most dangerous. It is caused by a low concentration of moisture and a high level of dust in the air.
This is the lightning that usually causes forest fires and building damage.
White lightning can make the air surrounding it reach 50,000 degrees C.
That’s FIVE TIMES hotter than the surface of the sun!
(Just to be clear.. We are talking about atmospheric lightning here, not the low quality British cider of the same name! This terrible beverage will definitely NOT give you that amount of power)
What’s The Most Common Type of Lightning?
Intracloud (within cloud) lightning is actually the most common type of lightning, but we don’t see it as much as cloud to ground strikes, as they are hidden within the clouds.
Negative cloud to ground is the lightning we most often see. We know now that this type of lightning only makes up 25% of all lightning bolts.
What’s The Rarest Type of Lightning?
Sprites, blue and gigantic jets, and elves/haloes are all fairly rare. They only appear in very large thunderstorms, and can only be seen from above.
Gigantic jets count as the rarest known today by science. They occur roughly 1,000 times a year. (Which counts as rare, to a meteorologist!) They form into a fan shape that reaches high up into the stratosphere (a higher part of the atmosphere)
They usually happen over the ocean in big maritime storms. They are rarely seen as they come out of the top of a thundercloud that is miles from civilisation.
You would have to be very lucky to see one!
Does Ball Lightning Exist?
There are a lot of stories about very rare ball lightning. Does it really exist?
For centuries, witnesses have recorded ball lighting to be spheres of light that appear suddenly near the ground in thunderstorms. The colors can range from yellow, to orange, to blue.
One ball of lightning allegedly smashed through the window of a church in the 16th century! Many Second World War fighter pilots recorded seeing balls of bright light as they flew.
There are many arguments about why ball lightning happens.
- Certain rocks giving off electrical charge
- Reactions between oxygen and the soil
- The presence of glass
- Microwave radiation
This video appears to show one episode of ‘real’ ball lightning, and one that has been faked using CGI. It’s hard to prove either way as ball lightning is infernally hard to capture on camera!
That’s why weather scientists don’t count ball lightning as the rarest lightning. It hasn’t been conclusively proved that it exists. Some consider ball lightning to be a hallucination or mirage. Or formed from electricity from broken power lines.
Ball lightning is truly mysterious!
What do you think?
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Dangerous Colours of Lightning
Is there a lightning color which is especially dangerous?
Well, white lighting is the hottest and therefore most likely to cause fires and damage to structures. It can easily reach temperatures above 30,000 degrees Celsius.
Red lightning is not nearly as hot. Plus it most often happens far up in the atmosphere where it can’t cause us any harm. This applies to Blue Jets, gigantic Jets and red Halos too, despite their crazy colors.
(Unless we are piloting a space shuttle or a fighter jet above a stormcloud…)
Bolt from the Blue
One of the most dangerous types of lightning has to be ‘bolt from the blue’ lightning.
This refers not to the color, but the fact it can leap out of a cloud more than 6 miles away and reflect off the air in between. This means it hits the ground in a random spot, which may even have blue sky above it!
Or you underneath it…
The Greek God Zeus was thought to strike those who had angered him this way. The poor mortal concerned would have no idea what had hit them. This is why Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, was often depicted with a thunderbolt in his hand.
Truly, the ‘bolt from the blue’ could be the wrath of Zeus!
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What Factors Influence the Color of Lightning?
There are a couple of factors that can influence the color (or appearance) of lightning.
- Concentration of moisture.
- Distance from the ground.
- How far away the storm is from you.
- Particles in the atmosphere around it.
- The type of film you are using to photograph it!
Concentration of moisture
Moisture in the atmosphere can affect the color of lightning as we see it. This is because the drops of moisture diffract or absorb a portion of the white light. This is why lighting seen in a snowstorm can look pink or green.
It is rare to see lighting in a snowstorm, hence the rarity of the colors.
Raindrops can also affect how lighting looks from the ground, for the same reason.
Distance from the ground
Lightning that is the last 10ft (3.5m) near to the ground can look deep orange or red. It looks fiery orange when it strikes an object like a tree.
How far away the storm is from you
Lightning further away can look more orange or red due to atmospheric particles in the way. Lightning has the same spectrum of light as sunlight, so it is affected by the atmosphere the same way.
The spectrum is the visible part of electromagnetic light that the human eye can see.
Particles in the atmosphere
This can range from snow crystals, rain, or pollution such as smog or dust from a storm. So clouds, pollution, smoke will all have an effect on how you see the color of the lightning. In the same way that snow crystals can diffract the light.
If there is more nitrogen, oxygen or other gasses in the sky, this will also affect how we see the color of the lightning.
The type of camera film you are using to photograph it!
This isn’t as stupid as it sounds! Okay, so the film can’t actually affect the color of the physical lightning strike.
The photo colors, however, can vary depending on what type of film you have used!
If you are using print film, the lightning in your shot may be yellow or orange in color.
If you are using slide film, you are likely to get a cooler hue of blues and purples.
Just to make things more confusing!
Sprites, Jets, and Elves: The World of Transient Luminous Events
Sprites, blue jets, gigantic jets, discs, and elves?
These fantastic mythical beings are also the names of rarely seen Transient Luminous Events (TLE’s). They weren’t well documented until researchers began using airborne sensitive cameras and recording equipment. Before that, the only people who saw them were fighter pilots.
The reason for this is that all these phenomena happen above the thunderclouds. They are heading up to the stratosphere and above. This is why we usually can’t see them from below with the naked eye.
Nowadays we can take photos of sprites, elves and jets from above using space technology such as the International Space Station.
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What Kind of Lightning is Red?
Sprites – Red Jellyfish!
Sprites are usually red in color.
Sprites can spread out and reach up to 60 miles from the top of a cloud. They are faint and can only be seen at night. Usually they have been captured by ultra sensitive cameras.
They can take the shape of a jellyfish or even a carrot!
“Kind of like a ‘Tentacruel’ Pokemon!” fulminologist Chris Giesige tells us!
It is pretty hard to see sprites, as they only last a few seconds.
Elves – Giant Super Fast Halos
Elves are massive red halos that can spread to around 400km in diameter and 100km high. They only last a thousandth of a second. They happen at the top of a large thunderstorm.
You have about as much chance of seeing one (without special equipment) as you have a real magical elf!
Is there blue lightning?
Blue jets are a form of transient Luminous Event (TLE) caused by electrical charge. So, yes. There is bright blue lightning!
Blue jets! Are they really blue?
Yes, they are! Blue jets are even harder to see, as they only last a fraction of one second. Fighter pilots describe them as being fan shaped, extending about 25-30 miles up above the top of a thundercloud.
They happen when the positively charged protons from the top of a thundercloud jump to meet a layer of negatively charged particles above it.
This creates a super fast jet of blue colored electricity.
These amazing phenomena have only recently been recorded by the International Space Station, which managed to record 5 blue flashes and blue jets in 2019.
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What Kind of Equipment Would I Need to Study Lightning?
Fulminologists and weather scientists use:
- ISS Rapid-Scat – this circles the planet measuring winds, so scientists know where there will be a thunderstorm
- Dropsondes – these are weather balloons that are released into thunderstorms and weather events. They measure temperature, moisture, wind direction, and atmospheric pressure. (I’m not sure I’d like to be one of these. They must take a beating!) They are used by NASA and NOAA as well as US Air Force Reserves.
- GOES-R – a new geostationary satellite that takes pictures of weather events. Satellites like these give meteorologists a lot of information about weather from a viewpoint above the Earth.
What is bead lightning?
Bead lightning is the broken up luminous parts of a decaying channel of lightning. It isn’t a separate type of lighting. Rather a stage that normal lightning goes through. It looks really pretty though!
What is ribbon lightning?
Ribbon lightning is when high cross winds blow successive fast lightning strokes into one another, creating a ribbon-like effect. It usually happens in thunderstorms which have lightning with many return strokes.
Does dark lightning exist?
Unbelievably, yes, dark lightning does exist. Physicists have discovered bursts of gamma rays caused by very fast moving electrons hitting air molecules during thunderstorms.
They have called this the ‘gamma ray flash’. They are the most energetic form of radiation discovered on earth so far. Little is known yet about whether they normally accompany the usual sort of lightning. Spooky!
Is green lightning real?
In 2008, photographer Carlos Guiterrez captured a striking (ha ha, excuse the pun) image of green lightning over Chile’s Chaiten volcano. Atmospheric scientist Arthur Few of Rice University, Houston, tells us that the green color is probably caused by oxygen atoms that are electrically excited.
The same phenomenon causes the bright luminous colors of the Aurora Borealis. Few suspects that if we could see the inside of a thunderstorm, we would see a lot more green lightning.
Is it true that lightning can make the ground into glass?
In some cases, yes. The ground it hits must have a high concentration of silica, which when heated to high temperatures produces glass.
This means lightning can turn mud, sand or clay soil into a type of glass! The glass rock made by lightning strikes is called fulgurite. It is often in the shape of a twisted tube.
What is that smell you get before a thunderstorm?
How do I get to become a fulminologist?
I’ll let Chris Giesige answer this one. Chris studied Fire Science at university. He studied the chemistry, prevention and behavior of fire. There’s a fulminology paper here if you would like to read more on the topic.