The best or worst part (depending on your preference) about a dark and stormy night are the majestic flashes of lightning and booming thunder. Most people confuse the two terms, typically using “thunder” to describe both, but technically thunder is the sound produced by lightning, which is the flash of light. Lightning occurs when dense clouds become electrically charged due to the collision of water molecules. As charge builds up, the cloud becomes negatively charged. The negative charge becomes so intense that it begins to push electrons towards the surface of the Earth, creating a positive charge. Electricity always flows from a negative charge to a positive charge through a medium. The intensity of charges causes the air to become ionized (plasma), making it suddenly conductive and allowing the electricity to flow from the cloud to the ground. This is seen as a flash of intense light. As the electricity travels through this channel of air, it superheats the air and causes a massive expansion of air, much like an explosion. This creates an intense shockwave burst, producing a sound that we call thunder.
Lightning is a deadly force of nature. It clocks a peak voltage of somewhere between 30 million to billions of volts – far exceeding the electricity that can be generated by humans. When a lightning bolt strikes a human, it has a mortality rate of between 10~30%. The two effects of lightning on the human body is electrical shock and heat. As lightning flashes over the skin to reach the ground, it leaves a striking pattern known as Lichtenberg figures (see below), showing the path of the electrical breakdown. The intense electrical burst can cause loss of consciousness, arrhythmia or sudden cardiac arrest. The heat generated by the electricity can cause severe burns both externally and internally. It can literally fry internal organs causing permanent damage to the heart, lungs and brain. Neurological symptoms such as amnesia, confusion, sleep disturbance and chronic pain have also been reported. Strangely, there are also reported cases of lightning curing ailments such as blindness, deafness and baldness.
Because lightning is light and thunder is sound, one can calculate how far away lightning struck using the time between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Sound travels at 340m/s, so by multiplying the number of seconds between the lightning and thunder by 340, you can deduce the distance in metres. For example, if you see a lightning strike and then hear thunder after 7 seconds, the lightning must have struck 340m x 7s = 2380m = 2.38km away.