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Ok so, according to various different online sources, a single bolt of lightning is capable of raising the temperature of the air it rips through to... ummmmm...

50,000 degrees Fahrenheit?

What? That's eight times hotter than the surface of our Sun. It's hot enough to temporarily transform the air into an electrically-conductive plasma channel. Most people who're are unfortunate enough to be struck by lighting just barley walk away from such an event alive (only a select few are lucky enough to walk away nearly unscathed), but how does the extreme temperature of the plasma-like air not finish them off, or at the absolute very least, leave them with severe third-forth degree burns? I mean, they've gotta be standing inside them plasma channel for them to be hit with lightning in the first place, right? Human bodies aren't exactly made of electrically conductive substances/materials and even if they were, there's no way a cloud could build up such a strong charge that it reaches a human miles away from them. Even people standing only a few feet away from a lightning bolt strike strike walk away without feeling dehydrated.

Even if this heat didn't pose a direct threat to organic life though, how come it's effects aren't more noticeable on the environment? I mean, thousands of thunder/electrical storms happen every day on our planet, and places like Western Venezuela have storms that last for hours and produce hundreds of electrical bolts in a single minute. Why hasn't the extreme heat produced from these bolts raised the temperature of the planet by a noticeable amount? Why aren't there raging fires and gale force windstorms in every part of the world? Why do we even still have giant ice caps and snowy regions cold in temperature? How are lightning storms not considered a major cause of global warming and climate change? A thermonuclear weapon is capable of raising the temperature of the air to 100 million degrees Kelvin, which translates to 179999540.33 degrees Fahrenheit. If you round that number up to 180000000 and divide it by the temperature of a single bolt of lightning, you'll find that it takes up to 3600 strikes to produce the same amount of thermal energy as just one of these bombs. Roughly 1800 thunderstorms happen on our planet everyday, and since a thunderstorm that only produces a single bolt of lightning isn't a thing, far more than 3600 bolts of lightning are happening everyday on planet Earth. Despite this however, people still live and even thrive in places like Western Venezuela, while those previously mentioned bombs render miles of land uninhabitable for years. I just don't get it.

Sources https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning-temperature https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_weapon https://www.tripsavvy.com/venezuelas-neverending-thunderstorm-3498949 https://www.weatherwizkids.com/weather-thunderstorms.htm https://coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu/ask/7-How-hot-is-the-Sun-

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you cite your sources? $\endgroup$
    – Roger V.
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ Sure thing I'll edit them in $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ heat versus temperature worked example in 2) and 3) . khanacademy.org/science/chemistry/thermodynamics-chemistry/… $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clear-up. This was very helpful :) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ when we say "struck by lightning" we don't always mean the main part of the current passed directly through the object. It could be that the object was close enough to get struck by a lesser tendril of lightning, or was near enough to experience large electric fields and some current. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 11:07

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Crystal, you are confusing temperature and heat. A gas can be at at extremely high temperature but contain negligible heat energy, depending on its mass, or, to put it another way, its density and volume.

The temperature of something is a measure of the average speed at which its constituent atoms are moving. A jet of steam at high pressure can cause an enormous amount of damage to a human. A single water molecule moving at the same speed as those in the jet will cause no noticeable damage to a human- it is only the cumulative effects of impact by countless trillions of water molecules that causes the damage.

So, a bolt of lightening certainly does raise the temperature of a column of air enormously, but the amount of heat energy present at any point in the path of the bolt is not so large as to cause the type of damage you might suppose.

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  • $\begingroup$ I had always assumed that raising the temperature of something also increased the amount of thermal energy it had. I mean, I know it's possible to imbue an object with a boat load of energy and still have that object be cool enough to touch and safe enough to be around, but electricity doesn't travel through the air all that efficiently, and given that air's breakdown point is much higher than that of other electrically insulative substances, I figured it would have, or should have a very noticeable effect on the environment. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, raising the temperature does increase the thermal energy. But the point is that if you raise the temperature of two molecules by fifty million degrees, that is still much much much much much much less energy than raising a ton of water by one degree. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ So... the atoms and molecules in the air are spread out so far that, individually, just being close to some of them still isn't as harmful as being close to a substance that collectively has more energy overall? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ Pedantic, but semantically better: use thermal energy rather than heat energy. In the latter, heat is an adjective. However, as a noun, heat has a different sense, that of energy entering or leaving a system due to temperature gradients. The different senses of the word heat can be confusing to novices. $\endgroup$
    – garyp
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I have to say - the point you raise at the end would be sufficient reason for me personally to advocate that nobody perform the experiment you describe. The idea that, at my encouragement, somebody might try to touch or hold their hand in boiling water (even momentarily) is deeply troubling. I agree with your principle in the abstract, but I can’t help but feel that you should retract the suggestion that anybody actually do this. $\endgroup$
    – J. Murray
    Commented Nov 14, 2021 at 3:02
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Lightning does not introduce any energy to the atmosphere that was not already present; it is a conversion of kinetic energy of air movements into static electrical charge. I don't know if there has been any trend but for them to cause any overall change there would need to be evidence the rate of lightning strikes has changed.

The amount of energy in lightning is still small compared to other weather processes, including the weather that induces thunderstorms and produces lightning.

Lightning strikes do kill people but most survive. This is in part because most are not "hit" directly by the main lightning bolt. Multiple 'leaders' can form between ground and main bolt, some with currents below the threshold of making plasma (visible lightning) and the charge dissipating in the ground around can affect people and animals at much reduced currents than the main lightning bolt.

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