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10 Strange Things Left Behind by Lightning Strikes

by Jana Louise Smit
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Lightning is the electric superstar of the natural world. Violent storms often arrive with flashes of light, thunder, and sometimes a good downpour. However, such theatrics are not the sum of what can appear in the wake of a bolt.

Lightning has bizarre after-effects on people, the ground, and even the atmosphere around it. From antimatter to “elves,” here are ten unusual fingerprints of lightning strikes you never knew about!

Related: Top 10 Bizarre New Weather-Related Phenomena

10 Petrified Bubbles

Shockingly Powerful Lightning on Earth | Space News

When lightning hits a rock, it sometimes fills the stone’s interior with a network of bubbles. These hollow orbs are created when the strike’s heat vaporizes substances like water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen from the rock.

In 2016, researchers realized that the stone bubbles aren’t just an oddity. They act as a thermometer that reveals how hot materials become after a strike and how long a rock stays hot. This was an exciting discovery. Lightning remains a poorly understood phenomenon, and any new way to measure its power or behavior is welcome.

But how exactly do these “thermo-bubbles” work? When researchers want to calculate the peak energy levels of a lightning bolt after it hits a rock, they consider factors like the stone’s materials and the bubbles’ size, number, and distribution. Taken together, they can show the hottest moment of the strike.[1]

9 Perfect Crystal Balls

Volcanic Lightning: Because Exploding Mountains Aren’t Bad Enough

Volcanoes are among the most studied geological features on Earth. With so many scientific eyes on them, it wasn’t long before someone found small glass balls in volcanic ash.

Finding glass at eruption sites is not uncommon. Scientists have known for years that volcanoes can create glass, but until the balls were discovered in 2009, all such materials were shaped like jagged shards. The perfect spheres were a complete surprise. Even so, it wasn’t a mystery.

On occasion, when debris flies from the mouth of a volcano, individual ash particles rub together and create enough friction to spark lightning. These bolts are believed to heat the air to a scorching 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (30,000 degrees Celsius), melting glass particles into a liquid. As these droplets begin to fall, they turn into orbs and cool down, forming solid glass balls.[2]

8 A Super Rare Crystal

Scientists discover new ‘quasicrystals’ in Nebraska, US: What are quasicrystals?

In the past, scientists only believed in two types of crystalline solids. One group, which includes table salt and diamonds, has their atoms arranged in the same lattice pattern that keeps repeating. The other group’s atoms have no order. These solids, which include glass, usually consist of a jumble of atoms just smooshed together.

Then there are quasicrystals. These “in-between” crystals are organized and messy at the same time, with atoms arranged in a pattern. However, as they repeat, it’s never the same pattern. This hybrid status was seen as purely hypothetical, and for years, scientists thought such crystals couldn’t exist.

However, quasicrystals soon appeared at meteor impacts and nuclear detonation sites, and it became clear that they formed under high temperatures, pressure, and shock conditions. Researchers realized that lightning met these conditions and started examining fulgurite (sand fused by bolts of electricity) for quasicrystals.

In 2023, a piece of fulgurite in Nebraska produced the first quasicrystal suspected to come from a lightning strike. Remarkably, its atoms were arranged in a rarely-seen 12-sided symmetry, and the quasicrystal’s composition had never been recorded.[3]

7 Whistlers

Natural Radio From Lightning Sounds INCREDIBLE- VLF Radio

Not every odd thing lighting leaves behind is a physical object or damage. Among the most interesting alternatives are sounds, and in this case, peculiar whistling noises. The latter comes from a special breed of lightning called “whistlers.” As the name suggests, these bolts aren’t accompanied by a thundering crash, but a whistling noise some have likened to the pew-pew-pew sound of a video game.

On a more technical level, whistlers are bursts of very-low-frequency (VLF) radio energy waves. They have the mind-boggling ability to leap halfway around the world using the planet’s magnetic field lines. In one case, whistlers in Dunedin, New Zealand, originated far away in thunderstorms off the coast of Central and North America.

In 2008, the Dunedin whistlers caused a stir when their numbers suddenly spiked from a daily average of 1,000 to 15,000. Researchers traced the lightning to a volcanic eruption in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and ultimately counted over 21,000 whistlers in just 10 hours. Once the volcano’s ash plume collapsed, it cut off the lightning, and the whistlers fell silent.[4]

6 Sky Detergent

Could Lightning Be Impacting Air Quality?

In 2012, scientists chanced upon a discovery so unlikely that, at first, they believed their instrument readings were faulty. But as it turned out, their tools were absolutely fine, and the data led to the bizarre revelation that lightning can cleanse the atmosphere of harmful pollutants.

The whole thing began when researchers flew into stormy weather over Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas to collect information after every lightning flash. The data showed that massive amounts of hydroxyl and hydroperoxyl appeared after every visible lightning and also around other electrically charged areas within the storm.

As mentioned earlier, the scientists doubted their instruments due to the sheer presence of these two elements. However, when reviewing their work, it turned out that the information was accurate, confirming lightning as one of Earth’s biggest producers of hydroxyl.

This highly reactive compound is known to remove pollutants from the atmosphere by binding with them, so discovering that lightning is doing its bit for the planet is great news.[5]

5 Migraines

Lightning Causes Migraines!

The University of Cincinnati suspects that lightning can trigger headaches and migraines. Indeed, a 2013 study found that when lightning struck as far as 25 miles (40 km) away from a person with chronic headaches, their risk of a headache rose by 31% and a migraine by 28%. Even volunteers with no history of chronic head pain showed a 23% increase in headaches and migraines.

Lightning creates electromagnetic waves, which could trigger these conditions, but this has yet to be confirmed. Future studies might solve the mystery one day, but that doesn’t mean sufferers have to wait until then to get relief. Just knowing that lightning can increase the chance of pain allows one to take precautions as soon as thunderstorms are predicted.[6]

4 Glowing Elves

Blue jets, sprites & elves formed by storm cloud activity | Colourful Weather | ABC Australia

In 1994, NASA first detected gamma-ray flashes in thunderclouds. Also known as TGFs (terrestrial gamma-ray flashes), they became known as the most energy-packed lights on Earth.

TGFs are born when lightning excites atmospheric particles to the point that they emit radiation. This radiation also spawns elves. Unfortunately, these are not the type found in fairy tales. More similar to auroras, “elves” are luminous rings that appear and expand around a lightning strike.

There are many unanswered questions surrounding TGFs and elves. For example, it’s still not clear if TGFs create elves or if they even occur at the same time. But whether they tag-team the sky together or appear on their own, researchers know that both phenomena probably occur more often than we can currently detect.[7]

3 Fractured Bone Cells

What Happens When You’re Struck By Lightning?

When a person gets struck by lightning, their injuries commonly include burned skin and damaged organs. But what about victims who no longer have any soft tissues? Recently, scientists looked for a way to identify lightning deaths in skeletons, and it’s not as odd as it sounds. For example, should a hiker die from a lightning strike high up on a mountain and their remains are only discovered years later, such knowledge can help to determine their cause of death.

In 2021, a study found that lightning strikes leave a deadly signature inside bones. The same devastation was present in animal bones and human skeletons, showing cracks creeping outward from the center of bone cells or between clusters of cells. As it turns out, when lightning hits a person or animal, the electric current sends a high-pressure shock wave through their bones and literally blows the cells apart.[8]

2 Antimatter

Dark Lightning – Positron – Electron – Science at NASA

Read the word “antimatter,” and most people think about a mysterious thing that only exists in space or science fiction. However, Japanese researchers discovered that antimatter can appear on Earth, and lighting is behind this unexpected twist.

In 2015, Kyoto University wanted to study a form of electromagnetic radiation called gamma rays. They already knew that thunderclouds and lightning create gamma rays. Intending to explore the process more closely, gamma-ray detectors were installed along Japan’s lightning-prone western and northwestern coasts.

Two years later, four of the detectors produced gold. Located at Kashiwazaki city, Niigata, the equipment recorded a massive gamma-ray spike right after a lightning bolt struck a few hundred meters away. Incredibly, the data showed that the lightning reacted with the air in such a way that it produced positrons—the antimatter version of electrons.[9]

1 Life

Origin of Life: Lightning Strikes May Have Provided Missing Ingredient for Earth’s First Organisms

According to research, phosphorus sparked life on Earth. This chemical is necessary for the formation of important biomolecules, including DNA. The earliest phosphorus had to come from somewhere, and at first, this source was believed to be meteorites. The space rocks carry schreibersite, a mineral that releases a large amount of phosphorus when moist.

In 2021, a study suggested that lightning strikes could’ve been another—or the only—major source of primordial schreibersite. Sometimes, when a bolt discharges into the ground, it causes a root-like system of melted sand or soil, otherwise known as fulgurite. Scientists examined one such fulgurite “nest” under a scanning electron microscope and found that it contained balls of schreibersite.

The study proposed that early Earth was zapped by up to five billion lightning strikes annually. As a result, huge deposits of fulgurite were likely present and releasing sufficient phosphorus into the environment to encourage the emergence of life.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Jana Louise Smit

Jana earns her beans as a freelance writer and author. She wrote one book on a dare and hundreds of articles. Jana loves hunting down bizarre facts of science, nature and the human mind.

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