Perhaps the most known and powerful display of electrostatics in nature is a lightning storm. Lightning storms are inescapable from humankind's attention. They are never invited, never planned and never gone unnoticed. The rage of a lightning strike will wake a person in the middle of the night. They send children rushing into parent's bedrooms, crying for assurance that everything will be safe. The fury of a lightning strike is capable of interrupting midday conversations and activities. They're the frequent cause of canceled ball games and golf outings. Children and adults alike crowd around windows to watch the lightning displays in the sky, standing in awe of the power of static discharges. Indeed, a lightning storm is the most powerful display of electrostatics in nature. In this part of Lesson 4, we will ponder two questions:
* What is the cause and mechanism associated with lightning strikes? * How do lightning rods serve to protect buildings from the devastating affects of a lightning strike?
Static Charge Buildup in the Clouds
The scientific community has long pondered the cause of lightning strikes. Even today, it is the subject of a good deal of scientific research and theorizing. The details of how a cloud becomes statically charged are not completely understood (as of this writing). Nonetheless there are several theories that make a good deal of sense and that demonstrate many concepts previously discussed in this unit of The Physics Classroom. The precursor of any lightning strike is the polarization of positive and negative charges within a storm cloud. The tops of the storm clouds are known to acquire an excess of positive charge and the bottoms of the storm clouds acquire an excess of negative charge. Two mechanisms seem important to the polarization process. One mechanism involves a separation of charge by a process that bears resemblance to frictional charging. Clouds are known to contain countless millions of suspended water droplets and ice particles moving and whirling about in turbulent fashion. Additional water from the ground evaporates, rises upward and forms clusters of droplets as it approaches a cloud. This upwardly rising moisture collides with water droplets within the clouds. In the collisions, electrons are ripped off the rising droplets, causing a separation of negative electrons from a positively charged water droplet or a cluster of droplets. The second mechanism that contributes to the polarization of a storm cloud involves a freezing process. Rising moisture encounters cooler temperatures at higher altitudes. These cooler temperatures cause the cluster of water droplets to undergo freezing. The frozen particles tend to cluster more tightly together and form the central regions of the cluster of droplets. The frozen portion of the cluster of rising moisture becomes negatively charged and the outer droplets acquire a positive charge. Air currents within the clouds can rip the outer portions off the clusters and carry them upward toward the top of the clouds. The frozen portion of the droplets with their negative charge tends to gravitate towards the bottom of the storm clouds. Thus, the clouds become further polarized. These two mechanisms are believed to be the primary causes of the polarization of storm clouds. In the end, a storm cloud becomes polarized with positive charges carried to the upper portions of the clouds and negative portions gravitating towards the bottom of the clouds. The polarization of the clouds has an equally important affect on the surface of the Earth. The cloud's electric field stretches through the space surrounding it and induces movement of electrons upon Earth. Electrons on Earth's outer surface are repelled by the negatively charged cloud's bottom surface. This creates an opposite charge on the Earth's surface. Buildings, trees and even people can experience a buildup of static charge as electrons are repelled by the cloud's bottom....
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