This awe-inspiring photo of storm clouds and lightning, by Joe Randall, was featured on NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day website last week. The image was captured over Colorado and consists of around eighty stacked photographs.
As an official member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, photos like these make me swoon. These shots are from Ecuador Airlines pilot Santiago Borja. The first was captured through a Boeing 767-300 cockpit window at 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. The second was taken last October along the coast of Venezuela.
In the Washington Post, Borja explained the obstacles he met when taking these types of photos. “Storms are tricky because the lightning is so fast, there is no tripod and there is a lot of reflection from inside lights,” he said. Turbulence and near darkness also added complications to the shot.
This is a photo taken from above a lightning storm over West Africa by André Kuipers during an extended stay aboard the International Space Station. Lightning storms are a common sight for those on the space station. There are many millions of lightning flashes on Earth everyday. Considering that the ISS orbits Earth 16 times a day you can bet the IIS crew gets quite a show.
A lightning storm in Venezuela has been raging with incredible consistency since at least 1595. Known as “Relámpago del Catatumbo”, this mysterious storm located on the mouth of the Catatumbo river at Lake Maracaibo sees an estimated 1,176,000 electrical discharges per year. The lightning is a cloud-to-cloud arc that forms for 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours a night, and as many as 280 times an hour for centuries.
In fact, the lightning, visible from 400 kilometers away, is so regular that it’s been used as a navigation aid by ships and is known among sailors as the “Maracaibo Beacon.” Interestingly, generally little to no sound accompanies this fantastic light show, as the lightning moves from cloud to cloud—far, far above the ground.
(Image courtesy of University Of Florida Lightning Research Group)
How lightning works is still pretty much a mystery. But this summer, some large steps to understanding it’s movement were made. Until recently, there wasn’t fast enough camera technology to capture an x-ray image of lightning.
A new camera has a resolution sharp enough to reveal a bright ball of x-rays at the head of the bolt, with almost no lingering radiation along the bolt’s trail. The X-ray glow follows a so-called lightning leader – a channel in the air that forms a path for the lightning. The leader’s charged tip creates an electric field that accelerates electrons almost to the speed of light and causes the X-ray emissions.
The lightning leader is also known as a step leader, because it seems to travel by leaps and bounds rather than in a continuous line. The trail left by the step leader allows negative charge to travel down, even as positively charged leaders travel upward from the ground to meet in the middle. That triggers a so-called return stroke moving upward from the ground toward the cloud – the flash of what human eyes see as lightning.
You can find a lot more lightning stuff on Artifacting.
Less than two seconds in real-time, this video of a lightning strike in Rapid City, South Dakota is spectacular. The video is slowed down to 9,000 frames per second. ZT Research describes the video as a preceding downward positive ground flash that triggers upward leaders from seven towers, three of which are visible in the video. I love how hundreds of “mini strikes” flicker around the central strikes. ZT Research has more cool lightning strike videos on their site.
Lightning Safety Awareness Week was last month. But to reiterate the dangers of this shocking natural phenomenon, go have a look at this flickr footage of Jessica Lynch getting struck but lightning (or click the “more” link below). She’s a very lucky girl. From Jessica’s comments:
First off, just to reiterate, i’m totally fine! At the end f the video you can see my left hand starting to shake. It threw me back a few feet and then i proceeded to have a breathing problem that sounded like breath hiccups, short and quick, and that lasted for about 3-5 minutes. While that was going on i sat and watched my left arm shake like a jackhammer which seemed to last forever and i could feel the travel path in my arm for the 24 hours following. The air did turn much warmer after the strike. i didn’t notice cooling air before, but i also wasn’t thinking it was about to hit the ground in front of me. I had no idea i even took video of this until at least 20 minutes later. It was a total surprise!