How lightning forms and how to stay safe from it

Lightning. It’s one of nature’s most awe-inspiring displays. The sheer power of each bolt as it shoots across the sky, forking in different directions and able to reach locations 10 to 15 miles away from the parent storm.


What You Need To Know

Lightning can be 10-15 miles away from the storm

A simple equation can detect the distance of the lightning

Follow the 30-30 rule to stay safe


One bolt can reach temperatures over 50,000 degrees, or five times hotter than the surface of the sun. It is this intense heating of the air around a bolt of lightning that causes explosive expansion and the boom we hear as thunder. Light travels faster than sound which is why you see a flash before hearing the boom.

So how does lightning develop? Well, tiny ice crystals floating around in the tower of a thunderstorm are crashing into each other as the air within the cloud rises and sinks. Positively and negatively charged particles called electrons bounce around and stack up at various parts of the cloud, with the positive charges moving toward the top and the bottom filled with negatively charged particles. 

The negative charge heads toward the ground and collides with positive electrons that have also gathered on the ground. Since opposites attract, the positive and negative particles flow toward each other and collide, sending a current of electricity up into the cloud and causing the flash we see as lightning.​

How can you figure out the distance of a thunderstorm to you? Right after you see a flash, count 1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, 3-Mississippi, etc. Once you hear thunder, take your number and divide it by five. This gives you the number of miles a storm is from your location.

What are some ways to stay safe from lightning? First thing is to get inside. If you cannot get indoors, do not seek shelter under a tree or tall object — tall objects attract lightning. Get out of the pool or off the lake, as water conducts electricity.

Think of the 30-30 rule. Count the seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder, and if this time is under 30 seconds, lightning is a threat. After hearing the last rumble of thunder, wait at least 30 minutes before going back outside.

A few phrases to keep in mind during thunderstorm season. If you hear it, fear it, if you see it, flee it, and when thunder roars, go indoors. No place outside is safe during a storm.

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