The Effects of Thunder & Lightning

Updated February 21, 2017

In a split second, a lightning bolt can reach a temperature that is several times hotter than the sun's surface -- up to 27760 degrees Celsius. At this superheated temperature, a lightning strike can severely damage buildings and kill people. By understanding the effects of thunder and lightning, you can keep yourself safer during a thunderstorm.


Lightning strikes can have significant effects not only on manufactured structures but also on naturally formed structures like trees. Lightning can affect not only structures that it strikes directly, but it also can have damaging effects on structures by way of nearby lightning strikes because forces generated by lightning travel through the ground, water or air. Structural damage can include vaporisation of masonry, melting of structural materials and setting a building afire. In trees, lightning heats internal moisture within the tree into steam, which causes bark to fall off. Although some trees survive such damage, when severe enough, this type of damage causes decay that eventually results in the tree's death.


Each year, about 2,000 people worldwide sustain lightning-related injuries. Of those people, between one-quarter and one-third die. As with structural damage, the injury can occur in several ways with relation to lightning, such as a direct hit by a lightning strike or receiving an electric charge through the ground from a nearby lightning strike. Reports also exist of injuries from current conducted through landline telephones sending an electric shock into the individual's ear -- sometimes with fatal results.

Earth's Surface

Lightning can affect the Earth's surface, particularly when lightning strikes where surface composition involves sand or loose soil like on sandy beaches or in desert regions. Lightning that strikes in these regions may fuse the sand or soil into channels. These lightning-caused channels have the name fulgurites, and in addition to natural beaches and desert areas, you can sometimes find fulgurites under the surface at golf courses.


Lightning itself directly causes thunder through the creation of an acoustic shock wave. While most of the effects involved with thunder and lightning derive from the lightning rather than the thunder, the discrepancy in the speeds of light and sound result in one specific effect related to the thunder itself. Every five-second delay between a lightning strike and thunder represents approximately a one-mile distance from your location for the lightning strike.

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About the Author

A writer/editor since 1984, Christine Lebednik has spent much of her career in business and technical writing, and editing. Her consumer print and online articles include product descriptions for TDMonthly Online, book reviews for Catholic News Service, consumer reports for Consumer Search and works for various other publications. Lebednik received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Salem State College.