Where Else But Earth Does Lightning Flash On Starry Nights?

A thunderhead lets loose a bolt of lightning late last night. Lightning is produced when liquid droplets or ice particles collide and built up electrical charges within clouds. Once the fields are strong enough, they can connect and discharge in a gigantic “spark” much like what happens when touching a metal doorknob after rubbing your feet on a carpet. Credit: Bob King

Capable of great destructive power but captivating to watch, lightning storms are one of Earth greatest wonders. Ever since I was a kid I’ve sought out safe places during thunderstorms and thrilled to the sight of lightning. Who can resist watching the towering clouds light up like a scene from an old Frankenstein movie.

Thunderheads lit by the waxing gibbous moon parade across a starry northern sky last night. Credit: Bob King

Last night was just such a night. Lightning flashed almost continuously from a line of thunderstorms far to the north of our home. Above the tumult the sky was clear. I grabbed camera and tripod and drove to open country to better see the show. Most of the flashes were hidden from view inside towering cumulonimbus clouds, but now and again a bolt of naked electricity blazed forth.

Clouds, lit by moonlight and city light pollution, encroach upon the moon around midnight last night. 10 minutes later, the incoming storm chased me home. Credit: Bob King

The gibbous moon provided a second light source, illuminating the thunderheads in beautiful 3D. I wasn’t the only one out on the road gawking at lightning. Two other cars pulled up; from the distance I could made out the telltale glow of a camera’s rear display screen. Guess I wasn’t the only photographer either.

The bright star Arcturus shines in a gap between towering cumulus clouds lit by moonlight late last night. Credit: Bob King

One thing I discovered about shooting lightning is to keep the exposures short. While you’ll get more flashes in longer exposures, the clouds, which are always on the move, blur too much for my taste. Short exposures mean higher ISOs and the need to open up your lens wider, so most of my pictures were 4-second time exposures at ISO 1600 with the lens opening set at f/4.5.

Artist’s view of lightning in Venus’ dense carbon dioxide atmosphere laced with clouds of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. How lightning is produced in this exotic realm is still unknown. Credit: ESA

Earth’s not the only planet where lightning storms are common. Radio bursts from lightning flashes have been picked up by the current Venus Express mission in that planet’s thick layer of sulfuric-acid-laced clouds. Most of the flashes are the cloud-to-cloud lightning variety and last a fraction of a second.

Voyager 1 photo of lightning flashes (foreground) in Jovian thunderstorms photographed on the planet’s nightside. The blue fuzz at top is the aurora. Credit: NASA

As far as thunderstorms go, Jupiter far outdoes Earth. Jovian tempests are cooked up in similar water-bearing clouds but much deeper within the planet’s massive atmosphere; they tower three times higher than earthly thunderheads. And watch out for those raindrops. Jupiter’s powerful gravity pulls them down faster … and harder!

The largest storm ever observed on Saturn is shown here in its early stages in February 2011 in a photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Remnants of the cataclysm remain to this day. Click to learn more. Credit: NASA

The Cassini spacecraft, which will take Earth’s picture today, has photographed powerful storms on Saturn too, including the most recent planet-wrapping behemoth that bubbled up in December 2010 and put a hurt on the ringed world for more than two years.

Sure, other planets’ lightning storms may be more impressive or even more frequent than Earth’s, but there’s no where else in the solar system but here where you can stand on solid ground and take in a thunderstorm while simultaneously gazing at the stars and moon. Venus is perpetually overcast and the storms of the giant planets lie deep within their atmospheres.

Once again, Earth wins as my favorite planet.


5 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    On the way to work, I glanced to the north for Northern Lights. The sky was it’s usual black. But to the south west, I saw a beautiful Moon setting and straight south a nice bright display of lightning from the few clouds that were there.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    I woke up at 2, took my wife to her job and then I had driven 52 miles by 4 AM, to start my own shift.

  3. Andrew Kirk

    Bob, your lead photo of lightning is gorgeous. Were you using a “lightning detector” release on your camera…or was it some hard-earned luck?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Andrew,
      Hard-earned luck! I shot for almost an hour, and while there was a lot of lightning, most of it was buried inside the clouds.

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