Weather Whys: What causes lightning?

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Lightning is one of the most deadly weather events and one that we see a lot in southern Colorado. So if you ever wondered how it forms and how you can stay safe when storms roll through, keep reading.

To understand what causes lightning, we have to take a closer look inside of a cloud–in particular, a thunderstorm. There are two main ingredients needed to create lightning: warm air and cold air. Both of these are found in storm clouds. The warm air contains water droplets, and the cold air contains ice crystals. As these water droplets and ice crystals move around in the clouds, they collide. The collisions create static electricity. 

This creates an electric charge in the cloud. This charge grows as the storm develops and the ice and liquid water collide. The positive charge is near the top of the cloud, while the negative charge grows near the base. Eventually, the charge is so great that the storm releases energy. It releases energy in the form of a lightning bolt. This typically heads to the ground. 

The lightning heats up the air around it. As the air heats up, it expands and spreads out very quickly. This creates the “thunder” sound we hear following a lightning strike. 

If you hear thunder, go inside! That is the number one tip to stay safe in a storm.

If you are stuck outside, stay away from open spaces, but don’t take shelter under a tree. Lightning often hits the highest point. You are more likely to be struck if you are under a tree or near another tall object. If you are swimming, get out of the water. If you are hiking and can safely head back down the trail to your car, that is the safest option. 

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