Monthly Archives: January 2012

Electric Fields

In the last post, I glossed over the bit about how lightning has a hard time passing through air, so I thought I’d clarify (and hopefully this’ll be clear enough that I don’t need to keep up with this string of addenda and clarifications and can write about something new).

From the last post:

The net difference in electrical potential builds up, until the neutral air and water vapour in between the positive and negative regions can no longer sustain the difference, and a lightning bolt discharges the electrical energy. Air is a very good electrical insulator (ie, it is difficult for an electrical current to pass through the air), so a very large electric field can be sustained in the cloud before a lightning bolt discharges the stored energy, and returns at least part of the cloud to a neutral electrical state.

So what exactly is an electric field? It’s a region where, if a charged particle is placed, it will experience an electric force. It’s just like a magentic field: when a magnet (for example, a compass) is placed in a magnetic field (like the Earth’s planetary magnetic field), it experiences a force that aligns it (ie, the compass needle) in a particular way. Similarly, a charged dropped into an electric field will experience a force that pushes it in the field. Electric fields are created by a distribution of charges, either discrete or continuous:

A point charge and a lump of continuous charge, both with electric field lines.

The green lines represent the electrical field.

Of course, the force experienced by a charge dropped into a field depends on the sign (positive or negative) of the charge. A negative charge will experience the opposite force that a positive force experiences, ie, the arrow heads all point in the other direction.

With lightning, it’s not a point test charge dropped into the cloud that creates the bolt, but rather that the charge distribution itself cannot be sustained any longer, and a bolt transfers charge from one region of the cloud to another and neutralizes the field.

Heavily charged cloud with two lightning bolts.

The bolt travels through air, and air is not a vacuum, so the physical properties of the air (or any material that charge is attempting to move through) will affect how easily the charge can move through the material. Materials (and by materials I mean any state of matter, so it can include say glass, water, and air) can generally be classified as either insulators or conductors, depending on a property called conductivity. Electrical energy has a hard time travelling through insulators (like glass) which have a low conductivity, while it passes easily through conductors (like metals), which have high conductivity.

The electrical conductance (or resistance, depending on how you look at it) depends on the atomic or molecular structure of the material. Metals are excellent conductors of electricity, due to their atomic structure. Metals, by definition, have a lattice structure, with loose electrons that can propagate throughout the metal and are not confined to a single atom.

Schematic of metal lattice of positive ions, with an electron that is free to propagate through the lattice.

A very small piece of a metal lattice. The positive ions (nuclei) form the lattice, and the negative ions (valence electrons) can propagate throughout the lattice.

These loose electrons, which are negatively charged, carry electrical charge throughout the material. When a charge is applied at one end of a piece of metal, that charge quickly and efficiently propagates throughout the metal, as the loose electrons move throughout the metal in response to the introduced charge.

But not all materials are metals, and many do not have such loose electrons to acts as charge carriers. Glass, for example, is an excellent insulator, because it has an amorphous, non-crystalline molecular structure. There are no loose electrons, and so few loose charge carriers, and an applied electrical charge has difficulty propagating through the material.

A schematic of glass's crystal structure.

Glass does not have a regular lattice structure, so electrons do not propagate easily through it.

Air is like glass, in that even though there is plenty of room for particles to move freely, there are very few charge carriers to transfer electrical energy from one location to another. This means that a very large electric field can be sustained across a cloud, as small amounts of charge have a hard time flowing freely between the two regions. There is no such thing as a perfect insulator, and eventually the air cannot sustain the electric field, but since it is such a good insulator, the bolt that discharges the energy is very energetic, which we see as a bright flash and hear as a clap of thunder.

Lightning and Thunder

While the last post talked about how thunderstorms form, it didn’t discuss either thunder or lightning (it was getting a bit long). So let’s talk about that!

Lightning is a discharge of electrical energy between different regions within a thundercloud, and it’s a byproduct of a thunderstorm, not a critical element to the storm’s formation. What is critical is the updraft that pushes lots of moisture into the atmosphere where it condenses and forms a thundercloud, and it’s this updraft that is thought to be what drives the electrical structure of a thunderstorm as well. (The precise mechanism is not totally understood.) The updraft forces the circulation of particles within the cloud. As ice and water particles collide within the cloud, they form and break apart. Small ice particles tend to gain a net positive charge, and the larger slushy particles tend to acquire a negative charge. The (positively charged) ice particles are smaller and are more easily pushed to the top of the cloud by the updraft, while the negatively charged slush particles particles fall to the middle and bottom of the cloud. The Earth also acquires a net positive charge in the area underneath the storm, as the concentration of negative charge at the bottom of the cloud induces a positive charge directly below it.

Thundercloud with positive charge at the top and negative charge at the bottom.  The ground below has a positive charge too.

The red arrow is the updraft that drives the circulation within the cloud.

The net difference in electrical potential builds up, until the neutral air and water vapour in between the positive and negative regions can no longer sustain the difference, and a lightning bolt discharges the electrical energy. Air is a very good electrical insulator (ie, it is difficult for an electrical current to pass through the air), so a very large electric field can be sustained in the cloud before a lightning bolt discharges the stored energy, and returns at least part of the cloud to a neutral electrical state.

Heavily charged cloud with two lightning bolts. Thundercloud with regions now neutralized after lightning bolt.

What appears as a single, instant bolt of lightning is usually made of several bolts of lightning that occur so quickly that the human eye perceives them as one. An initial “leader” bolt, which is not very luminous, extends down from the cloud to the ground. In response to the charge, tall objects form “streamers,” which are strands of positive charge that extend up towards the negatively charged leader. The leader often branches several times, and if one of those branches connects with a streamer, negative charge flows from the cloud to the ground. Nearly instantaneously, positive charge flows from the ground to the cloud along the path formed by the leader. This is the extremely bright that we see; the charges can zip back and forth between the cloud several times in what we see as a single bolt.

Branched lightning meeting streamers from a tree and a house.

The yellow leader may branch several times; the blue lines from the tree and house are streamers.

Most lightning occurs within a cloud (or between two different clouds), but lightning between the (usually negatively charged) bottom of the cloud and the (usually positively charged) Earth is both better understood and much more distructive. Most lightning that occurs between a cloud and the Earth occurs between the bottom of the cloud and the earth, rather than the top. However, some lightning can form from the top of the cloud, arcing all the way to the ground. When that happens, the charge from the cloud is positive and the induced charge from the ground is negative (ie, the opposite of lightning that forms from the base of the cloud).

Lightning bolt from the top of the cloud to the ground.

Thunder accompanies lightning, because as the lightning bolt extremely suddenly heats the air around it, the air is compressed into a shock wave. The compression shock is very localised, since lightning is extremely hot (~20,000 degrees Celsius) and extremely shortlived (~30 microseconds), and the shock decays into an acoustic wave, which we hear as a clap of thunder. Since sound travels much more slowly than light, the time between when you see a stroke of lightning and hear the accompanying clap of thunder can be used to estimate how far away the lightning bolt was. A difference of 5 seconds means the bolt was around a mile away, and a difference of 3 seconds means it was about a kilometer away.

How Thunderstorms Form

It’s the middle of winter here now, so let’s start off with something that happens much more in the summer here.

All thunderstorms need a few ingredients to form, including a source of moisture, warm wet air and cold dry air that interact, and a mechanism to trigger an updraft (more on this in a moment). In North America, the source of moisture is often either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico — the moisture does not need to be where the thunderstorm forms, but rather where the air that feeds into the thunderstorm originates from.

Air flow over North America.  Cold dry air comes from the west over the Rockies, while warm wet air flows up from the Gulf of Mexico over the middle of the continent.

Warm air blows over (say) the Gulf of Mexico, picks up moisture, and then continues on into the Southern US, where it may form a thunderstorm. This warm, wet air is typically close to the planet’s surface — it picks up the water from the ocean, and does not rise very high (yet). This low, warm, wet air may encounter cold, dry air from the Rockies. If this happens, the warm wet air will be lifted up by the cold air, and the moisture in the air will condense into a cloud.

Lifting mechanism.  Cold air is denser than warm air, so when warm and cold air meet, the warm air is lifted upwards.  The moisture in the warm air condenses into a cloud.

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Welcome to Eight Crayon Science!

One time a couple of years ago, when I was working on my MSc, my parents took me out for dinner, and in the middle of it, my Dad handed me a pocket notebook and a package of eight Crayola crayons and asked me to explain my thesis to him.  I found a blank page, thought for a minute, and tried to put my very abstract thesis into pictures, to moderate success — art is not something I’m talented at, and the pictures ended up squished in a corner of the crowded page.  It must’ve made an impression on my Dad, though, because since then, whenever my Dad has asked about what I’m working on, he’s made a quip about having a package of crayons waiting for me.   

My parents are both very smart people, but neither of them have much of a formal background in science beyond high school.  Science is often communicated in technical language, which is often very discipline-specific and can be very obscure, or through popular media, which frequently obscures or misrepresents the findings.  However, I believe that having a grasp of solid, evidence based science is becoming increasingly important, regardless of what level or kind of formal education a person has.  This blog is my attempt to lay a plank over the gap between the technical language of science and the lay language of people like my parents.  Eight Crayon Science is not about jargon, obscure details, or pages of formulas and mathematics. It’s about the fundamental ideas underpinning the science that affects our everyday lives. It’s about communicating those ideas, discoveries, and theories in a way that’s clear, honest, and hopefully accessible. It’s about fostering a dialogue about science that everyone, not just specialists and scientists, can participate in comfortably — and I hope you do! Science is helping to provide us with the means to understand some of the most important changes occurring in the world around us, and I hope you’ll join me in exploring and discovering our world.

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