Center for Magnetic Self Organization

in Laboratory and Astrophysical Plasmas

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Size: 1-2 inches thick and up to 5 miles long
Mass: estimate 3.7 kg of plasma per stroke (about the mass of a gallon of water)
Distance: lightning forms 5-10 miles above Earth’s surface Temperature: 30,000°C
Flow Speed: a stroke can travel 200 million mph
Location: Thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions

Lightning is a plasma made of air that is nearly three times as hot as the Sun’s surface. The intense heat causes surrounding air to suddenly expand in a shock wave we hear as thunder.

This massive electrical spark occurs when huge voltages (50-500 million volts!) build up in clouds due to the rising and sinking motions of ice and water particles.

The amount of energy in a lightning bolt is roughly equivalent to the power used by an average household in one month.

A National Science Foundation Physics Frontier Center,
established in coordination with the Department of Energy.