Why do trees attract lightning?

Lightning is among the most striking and impressive phenomena of nature, a true meteorological gift. These are electrical discharges that are produced by the accumulation of static electricity in the atmosphere. The positive charge that accumulates in the clouds is attracted by the negative charge on the earth’s surface.

According to the records we have about forty-four lightning strikes every second on our planet and each of them can generate an instantaneous power of one gigawatt (billion watts).

This impressive electrical activity, apparently random, follows a certain pattern, to the point that experts have been able to draw a global map with the incidence of lightning.

With these data it has been possible to know that more are generated in some parts of the planet than in others, for example, in our country the largest number of discharges are registered in the Pyrenees and the Iberian System, to the east of Teruel and in the interior of Castellon. Worldwide, the palm is taken by the Mitumba mountains -in central Africa- and South America, especially in the area of ​​Lake Maracaibo.

Appetite for trees

When what is analyzed is not the place but the time of the year, seasonal variations are also observed. It has been found that in summer there are more rays in the northern hemisphere than in the southern hemisphere, and that winter rays are more powerful.

Generally they fall more frequently in places that have more humidity, such as oceans, lakes or forested areas, since there is a greater electrical attraction.

Other influencing factors are the height or the material with which the terrestrial elements have been made, there being a special appetite for metal. For this reason, the antennas and the poles of the buildings are some of the places that register the greatest number of lightning strikes.

Any pointed object –such as a tree- that stands out from the landscape around it can also be a good magnet to attract lightning. And it is that, basically, a tree is nothing more than a set of organic material (leaves, glasses…) that has a high concentration of water and an excellent capacity to conduct electricity.

They modify ecosystems

Scientists have studied the connection between the number of lightning strikes, ecosystem type, and biomass, concluding that lightning strikes are more frequent in forests and savannahs than in grasslands, scrublands, or croplands.

Based on this, it has been possible to know that lightning has the capacity to influence the biomass of the forests, ‘hitting’ the largest specimens. A study conducted by Steve Yanoviak, a professor at the University of Louisville, showed that a single lightning strike is capable of damaging a total of 23.6 trees and killing 5.5 trees.

Taking these data into account, Yanoviak was able to calculate that lightning damages approximately 832 million tropical trees annually, of which a quarter die due to injuries caused by electrical discharge.

One last curiosity, it is estimated that the chances of lightning striking a person is 1 in 500,000, men being five times more likely to do so than women. To reduce mathematical risk, experts recommend that if we are surprised by a storm in the field, we should squat, with our feet together, resting our hands on our knees while inserting our heads into the hole generated.

By Editor

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