How can lightning strikes cut trees in half?

What Is Lightning?

Lightning is nature’s powerful phenomenon. The effects of a lightning strike on any object can be devastating. Lightning is basically a power source of millions of joules of energy. It occurs due to the electrostatic discharge that takes place as a result of two electrically charged regions trying to establish equilibrium. One of the regions is located on the ground, particularly among tall trees and buildings lightning strikes.

What Happens When Lightning Strikes?

A strike of lightning may assume two paths:

  1. It may be conducted through the object, reaches the Earth and is neutralized,
  2. It may be offered resistance by the substance, creating heat. Thousands of degrees Celsius of heat can be created depending on the resistance offered by the object.

What Happens when it Strikes a Tree?

When lightning strikes a tree, the tree may be seen to burst into flames, or it may survive the initial blow, wilting and dying over the course of a few days. Why does this happen? The tree splits open because of the pressure of the boiled sap inside it. Therefore, not due to the lightening cutting or actually striking the tree.

This happens in a tree because there is enough resistance to the flow of electricity. Unlike a human body which is a good conductor, trees are very poor conductors of electricity. An object that offers resistance to the flow of current converts the current into heat. When there is enough oomph, like a lightning strike, the electricity can easily overcome the resistance, however, creating a lot of heat.  The millions of joules of energy from the flash of lightning are converted to heat, producing a temperature of thousands of degrees Celsius.

There is a high amount of moisture in trees aside from the natural sap, and all this heat starts to boil the moisture present inside the cells of the tree. The steam builds up inside each cell, and also in the trunk where water is continuously flowing.

Steam takes up pretty more space than the liquid it used to be. And just because it can’t escape, it will cause the tree to rupture, split, or explode, to make its way out.  In a milder effect, it may simply break some of the branches, the bark may start to peel, and the tree may start to wilt.

Forest Fires

Forest fires result in case of dry lightning when a tree of more can burst into flames following a lightning strike, and the fire engulfs the whole forest.

Lightning often strikes the highest point in an area, mostly tall trees, or pointed areas on top of buildings or towers. Unfortunately, little can be done about trees in the forests, which are prone to frequent thunderstorms and lightning strikes. But if you live in a lightning prone area, you can have protection equipment installed that grounds the electric surge from lightning, hence protecting trees and your household.