Louisiana is no stranger to lightning storms, especially during the summer. This is when the atmosphere is most convectively active, producing the charged particles needed for lightning.
Lightning is a very common phenomenon, striking the U.S. nearly two-and-a-half million times a year. There are many different types of lightning, including cloud-to-cloud lightning, cloud-to-ground lightning, and both positive and negative lightning strikes. Negative lightning strikes come from the negatively charged particles located in the base of a thunderstorm cloud, meeting positively charged particles at the surface.
Positive lightning strikes are rare, originating from the positively-charged positives high up in the atmosphere, mostly on the backside of thunderstorm complexes. These are much more powerful than negative lightning strikes and deadlier. These can strike long after the main thunderstorm has moved past your location, most often in areas of light rainfall.
Lightning strikes kill nearly 50 people in the U.S. per year. Louisiana ranks in the top 10 states for death by lightning strikes. The deadliest month is July, when summertime thunderstorms can interrupt outdoor activities. Lightning from these storms can strike 10-15 miles away from the parent storm, even if the sun is still shining and the rain has not yet started. The rule of thumb is if you can hear the thunder, you are close enough to get struck by lightning, even if it is not yet raining.
If a lightning storm is approaching, it’s important to take shelter immediately. Do not stand under a tree, or any other tall object, as lightning most likely strikes taller objects. If you can get indoors, stay away from conductors of electricity including electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, corded phones, or metal doors.
Now that lightning is understood, you may be wondering what makes thunder. Simply put, thunder is the rapid expansion of the air surrounding the main lightning bolt. Lightning is very hot, near 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or hotter than the sun’s surface! Volume expands when temperature increases and contracts when temperature decreases. The rapid increase in temperature of the surrounding air leads to an extreme expansion of air, which is the thunder you ultimately hear!
You can also track how far a lightning strike occurred by counting the amount of time between the lightning strike and its thunder. Sound travels one mile every five seconds.
This means if the thunder is five seconds after the lightning, the strike occurred a mile away because the sound took five seconds to travel the mile to reach your location!