Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne How Lightning is Studied?
Name: Ryan
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A 

How do scientists study lightning?

This is a very difficult question to answer in a few sentences. The "short answer" is: In many ways.

If you want to study the question of lightning discharges I would direct you to the book: "The Lightning Discharge" by Martin A. Uman.

Vince Calder

This is a very difficult question to answer in a few sentences. The "short answer" is: In many ways.

If you want to study the question of lightning discharges see the book: "The Lightning Discharge" by Martin A. Uman.

Although you did not mention any intent, BE ADVISED: TRYING "EXPERIMENTS" WITH LIGHTNING IS FOR EXPERTS ONLY, IT IS NOT FOR THE NON-EXPERTS -- Ben Franklin notwithstanding. Modern analysis of his experiments seem to have a consensus that he was very lucky.

Vince Calder


Lightning is studied in many ways, from surface based experiments to satellite measurements.

The primary studies are:

1) Surface based lightning detection networks: There is an extensive network of sensors that has been installed in the United States to determine lightning location and intensity of individual ground strokes. This information is useful for warning purposes, but it has also provided a wealth of information to scientists who study the development of severe storms and the lightning that they produce.

2) Artificial spark generators: Large spark generators have been created by using a number of huge capacitors placed in series and enclosed in semi-trailers. The capacitors are charged and then allowed to discharge to produce a several foot long spark which is of the same intensity as a weak lightning stroke. These are employed to produce "lightning" in a controlled way so that the effects of lightning on aircraft, building parts, munitions storage facilities etc. can be determined. Artificial sparks have been used in laboratories as well as outdoors. I used such a system outdoors to determine the amount of nitrogen oxides produced by lightning.

3) Photographic studies: Many photographic studies of lightning have been performed with several goals in mind, including characterizing lightning shape, areas of thunderstorms that produce ground flashes, the intensity of flashes, the speed of lightning, etc.

4) Electrical studies: Lightning exhibits electrical wave forms that can be studied by looking at electrical field information recorded with sensitive instrumentation, electric field meters, etc. and sometimes in conjunction with photographic studies. Spherics (electrical discharges from lightning) can be detected by instrumentation nearly half the way around the world from where the lightning occurred. Learning more about the electrical effects of lightning is important since it can interfere with radio and other electromagnetic forms of communication.

5) Satellite studies: There are several satellites now in space that are constantly counting ground flashes, cloud-to-cloud flashes, and in-cloud lightning flashes and using sensitive instrumentation to determine the intensity of lightning strokes. Satellites have given us a much better handle on the number of flashes each day and the seasonal and geographic extent of lightning.

I would caution anyone to not attempt to build a spark generator at home that would even approach the intensity of lightning. Use of lightning spark generators can be very dangerous.

David R. Cook
Climate Research Section
Environmental Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory

Click here to return to the Weather Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory