Lightning and Temperature
what is the temperature of a lightening bolt and how does that temperature compare to that of the sun?
The following is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica...
LIGHTNING -the visible discharge of atmospheric electricity occurs when a
region of the atmosphere acquires an electrical charge, or potential
difference, sufficient to overcome the resistance of the air.
Lightning is usually associated with cumulonimbus clouds (thunderclouds) but
also occurs in nimbostratus in snowstorms and dust storms, and sometimes in
the dust and gases emitted from erupting volcanoes. During a thunderstorm, a
lightning flash can occur within a cloud, between clouds, between a cloud
and air, or from cloud to ground.
Lightning occurs because regions of net charge are generated by
charge-separation processes that produce an electric dipole structure in a
cloud. The charges within a thundercloud are distributed between a large
net-positive charge in the upper region of the cloud, a large net-negative
charge in the lower region, and a small net-positive charge in the lowest
part of the cloud. Charges reside on water drops, ice particles, or both. If
the surrounding air has a net charge, an air discharge from the cloud may
The flash of cloud-to-ground lightning is initiated by the neutralization of
the small net-positive charge in the lowest region of the cloud. A
cloud-to-ground flash comprises at least two strokes: a stroke and a
return stroke. A leader stroke carrying a negative charge passes from cloud
to ground. (Occasionally, however, the leader stroke is from ground to
cloud--especially with very high structures such as church steeples,
multistory buildings, or tall trees.) The leader stroke is not very bright
and is often stepped and has many branches extending out from the main
channel. As it nears the ground, it induces an opposite charge, concentrated
at the point to be struck, and a return stroke carrying a positive charge
from ground to cloud is generated through the channel. The two strokes
generally meet about 50 m (164 feet) above the ground. At this juncture, the
cloud is short-circuited to the ground and a highly luminous return stroke
of high current passes through the channel to the cloud.
A typical lightning flash involves a potential difference between cloud and
ground of several hundred million volts, with peak currents on the order of
20,000 amperes. Temperatures in the channel are on the order of 30,000 K
(50,000º F). The entire process is very rapid; the leader stroke reaches the
juncture point or the ground in about 20 milliseconds, and the return stroke
reaches the cloud in about 70 microseconds.
The thunder associated with lightning is caused by the rapid heating of air
to high temperatures along the whole length of the lightning channel. The
air thus heated expands at supersonic speeds, but within a metre or two the
shock wave decays into a sound wave, which is then modified by the
intervening medium of air and topography. The result is a series of claps
Although lightning strikes are dangerous because of their high-voltage
discharges, the tendency of strikes to occur at high points enables
lightning rods of conductive metal to draw the strikes and conduct them
harmlessly into the ground. By moving indoors or by sheltering in a low,
depressed area, such as a ditch, exposed persons can avoid being struck.
...and here is some information on the temperature of the sun...also from
the Encyclopaedia Britannica...
The High Temperature of the Corona
The most remarkable aspect of the corona is its high temperature, deduced by
the Swedish astronomer Bengt Edlen in 1942 after a study of the corona's
light. Much of that is sunlight scattered by coronal dust, but some light is
also produced by the corona itself, in narrowly defined colors ("spectral
lines") characteristic of its emitting atoms. In the 19th century, some of
the spectral lines of sunlight did not match the lines of any substance on
Earth, and it was proposed that they came from a new unknown chemical
element, named helium (from the Greek helios--Sun). Later, in 1895, Norman
Ramsey actually discovered helium on Earth.
Unknown spectral lines emitted by the corona were similarly credited to a
new element "coronium" until Edlen showed that they came from the familiar
atoms of iron, nickel and calcium, after they had lost an appreciable number
of electrons (e.g. 13 or 14 for iron). Such high levels of ionization
require the atoms to be buffeted around by extremely high temperatures,
around 1,000,000 C (1,800,000 F).
The source of the corona's heat remains a puzzle. It is almost certain that
its energy comes from the Sun's internal furnace, which also supplies the
rest of the Sun's heat. However, as a rule, temperatures are expected to
drop the further one gets from the furnace, whereas the million-degree
corona lies outside the surface layer where sunlight originates, whose
temperature is less that 6000 C.
Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO
A typical lightning stroke heats the air to
about 50,000 degrees F, whereas the surface
temperature of the Sun is only about 10,000
Argonne National Laboratory
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Update: June 2012