Watch What Happens When Lightning Misses the Earth

It's electrifying!

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Outer Places.

If you sat down to draw a lightning bolt, it would probably look like it's facing down, reminiscent of Harry Potter's scar. But lightning doesn't always hit the ground—in fact, what we all know to be "lightning" is only part of the picture.

The first recorded observation of "upside-down" lightning happened in 2001: researchers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico saw what could only be described as "backwards" or "upside-down" lightning with a low-light camera. At first, they saw lightning coming out of a cloud—pretty standard—but instead of heading for the Earth, it shot right out of the top of the cloud, seemingly headed for the cosmos.

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Here's how it works:

Negative electrical charge will accumulate towards the bottom of a cloud up to a certain threshold, at which point it will send a bolt to the Earth. But not all of this charge rests at the bottom—a lot of it will travel upwards towards the positively-charged top of a cloud. As you might be able to guess, that negative and positive electrical interaction cancels out. But, as we've come to find, that doesn't always go as planned. Sometimes, some climatologists think, the positive charge at the top of a cloud is pushed out by strong winds. This means that when that negative electrical charge gets to the top, it just keeps going instead of canceling out. It'll actually travel upwards right up to the edge of space, at the ionosphere (which has enough protons to cancel out the bolt).

So the next time you're standing out in a severe storm, pay attention. While the dangers probably far outweigh the "wow so cool" aspect of this observation, you might just get lucky and see lightning bolts shoot from the top of a cloud up into the farthest reaches of Earth's atmosphere. Which is, admittedly, pretty neat.

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Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 10 Jul 2017