Why Lightning Zigzags

A collision of electrons and oxygen creates special oxygen molecules that appear to be the reason why lightning strikes in a zigzag pattern, according to a plasma physicist from the University of South Australia.

What to Know

  • Lightning occurs when electrons hit oxygen molecules with enough energy to create high-energy singlet delta oxygen molecules, causing electrons to detach and illuminate, forming conducting steps, or zigzags.

  • The zigzag of lighting occurs when the conducting column connecting the step to the cloud remains dark when electrons attach to neutral oxygen molecules. This is immediately followed by detachment of the electrons by singlet delta molecules.

  • The step time in a lightning bolt is necessary for the excitation of large metastable densities to produce significant metastable detachment of electrons from negative ions.

  • Conducting steps of lightning redistribute the electric field and increase the potential and electric fields at the end of the step to make it possible to create further steps by ionization.

  • About 8.6 million lightning strikes occur worldwide each day. Each strike travels at almost 200,000 miles per hour, generating a massive amount of electricity.

This is a summary of the article, “Toward a Theory of ‘Stepped-Leaders’ of Lightning,” published by the Journal of Applied Science on November 24, 2022. The full article can be found on iopscience.iop.org.

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