The shocking science about static electricity during winter

The other day I was shopping at the grocery store. When I reached for a bag of potatoes, I felt a burst of static electricity. It happened again when I went to produce. It happened a third time in pet supplies.

I know many of you have felt this sensation, too. The fact is, our weather setup during the winter months has a lot to do with how frequently it happens.

What You Need To Know

  • Electrons, protons, neutrons and their structure create static discharge
  • Our bodies rubbing against our clothes make us more positively charged
  • Water vapor works to conduct the charge away from you
  • Adding a humidifier to your home can help ease the static buildup that leads to static discharge

The science

To understand why, we need to remember our high school chemistry and physics.

Electrons, protons and neutrons make up atoms. Electrons have a negative charge. Protons have a positive charge. Neutrons are neutral. As we go about our day, our bodies rub against our clothes and we lose electrons. When that happens, we become positively charged.

Objects such as a door handle have different charges. Most metals have more negatively charged composition. So, as you reach for the door handle, you release a static discharge. This happens as electrons move from the door handle to your hand and it shocks you.

Why is it worse during winter?

For the same reason we get dry and cracked lips and hands, moisture content also closely relates to static discharge.

Cold air does not hold as much moisture as a warm air mass does. As temperatures get colder in the winter, there is less moisture in the air, making it feel much drier. We call the moisture in the air water vapor.

Water vapor works to conduct the charge away from you. Less water vapor means that your body can hold on to that higher charge.

A higher charge means a greater discharge. So, it would make sense that during the winter months, static discharges become more frequent and might even sting a little when you touch a door handle, your dog, or in my case, some potatoes.

Can I do anything to prevent it?

Yes, you can! By adding a humidifier or bowls of water to your home, you increase the water vapor present and increase the relative humidity. With more water vapor present, your chances that a charge conducts away from you is better.

Our team of meteorologists dives deep into the science of weather and breaks down timely weather data and information. To view more weather and climate stories, check out our weather blogs section.

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