Ask the Wizard

Sunday, August 01, 1999
If electricity travels in the path of least resistance, why are lightning bolts crooked? --Robert A. Wheeling, Blythe, California

Nezette Rydell of the National Weather Service in New Braunfels, Texas, explains: Lightning is produced by the attraction between positive and negative charges in the atmosphere. During a storm, raindrops can acquire extra electrons, which are negatively charged. These surplus electrons seek out a positive charge from the ground. As they flow from the clouds, they knock other electrons free, creating a conductive path. This path follows a zigzag shape that jumps between randomly distributed clumps of charged particles in the air. When the two charges connect, current surges through that jagged path, creating the lightning bolt.
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