Science Questions

What would happen if 2 lightning bolts should hit each other?

Sun, 13th Feb 2011

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David Goodman asked:

What would happen if 2 lightning bolts should hit each other?


Dave -   A lightning bolt is essentially a very, very large spark.  This is when you have a very, very large charge building up on something.  It is so large that it can rip the electrons off air molecules, and then that suddenly means that air goes from being an insulator to a conductive plasma.  A plasma has free electrons moving around and therefore it conducts electricity very well.  That means the path which this has become very, very conducting, so it kind of attracts all of the other little lightning bolts and all the other charge from around it.  All that charge runs down one single lightning bolt all the way down to the ground.  I think that lightning bolts hit each other in the sky all the time and essentially, they just pick the path of least resistance and all the current from both of them would go down the path of least resistance to the ground.

Chris -   And they carry a huge current, 20,000 amps or so I read, and itís enough to heat the air in the area of the lightning bolt to about 30,000 Kelvin or six times the surface temperature of the Sun, which is why you get this huge expansion in the shockwave.

Dave -   Which is the thunder, of course.


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David Goodman asked the Naked Scientists: What would happen if 2 lightning bolts should hit each other? What do you think? David Goodman, Wed, 12th Jan 2011

They probably merge into one bolt. QuantumClue, Wed, 12th Jan 2011

As the lightning follows a path of least resistance which is created by ionization of air before the main strike - I would guess that the route that had least resistance of the two would be fully utilised and the second best not at all.  If you had bolts from separate clouds (ie where the charge had to go down different routes) then perhaps they could merge but it seems a lot of lateral movement would be required.  But once a path has been established it will be used again and again (stikes are very short) - so a second strike might well jump onto the path of the first strike and appear to be a merged bolt imatfaal, Wed, 12th Jan 2011

Keep in mind that lightning is not a single homogeneous "bolt" as often depicted.

Lightning typically goes from clouds to ground, but can also jump from clouds to clouds.  However, they have to seek an opposite pole in electricity.  Two "bolts" would have the same charge, and would not cancel out each other.

Having the same charge, there might also be a mild repulsion, and the lightening may not completely merge (although it appears the case from some 2-D photos, but it is unknown if that was true in 3-D).

As an aside, there is a new note on NASA that antimatter (electron/positron pairs) have been detected above lightening storms.

CliffordK, Wed, 12th Jan 2011

Very cool Clifford. yor_on, Thu, 13th Jan 2011

The lightning storms creating the positrons is recent news. But come on, did anyone expect any different really? :) QuantumClue, Thu, 13th Jan 2011

Hopefully the original poster won't shoot me for leading this topic astray.

I guess I was thinking the question related somewhat to what happens when one uses an accelerator blasting two electron streams at each other.  But, since like charges have little "natural" interaction, it seems to be somewhat of an non-issue.

The more interesting thing is whether nature is actually doing the same thing that physicists are doing in multi-billion dollar particle accelerators.  Which appears to be the case.  CliffordK, Thu, 13th Jan 2011

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