Some scientists literally spend their time waiting for lightning to strike.
Lightning is the second highest cause of annual weather-related deaths in the United States, according to the National Weather Association. It starts fires, causes power outages and wreaks havoc on electronics systems.
The science of lightning detection has improved dramatically since Ben Franklin flew his kite in a thunderstorm in 1752. Researchers can now predict conditions that precede a bolt from the blue, and track the location and strength of a strike while it's occurring.
"We've made significant progress in understanding the physics of lightning, but there's still lot of work that can be done," said atmospheric scientist Phillip Bitzer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
How lightning forms remains something of a mystery. The working hypothesis goes: When an updraft of warm air reaches a height where the temperature is just above freezing, ice crystals and frozen particles interact to produce an electric charge separation. When the electric field between the charges is great enough, an electrical breakdown — a lightning flash — occurs. (Infographic: The Mysteries of How Lightning Works)
The wrath of Zeus takes two forms: cloud-to-ground lightning and intra-cloud lightning. While lightning that strikes the ground poses the most direct threat to humans and infrastructure, lightning between or within clouds can provide warning of dangerous hail and tornadoes, said Kenneth Cummins, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.
"We've gotten pretty good at being able to quantify the number of cloud-to-ground discharges in a region, and we're getting better at quantifying the number and nature of intra-cloud discharges," Cummins told LiveScience.
Lightning-sensing systems have been evolving since the time radios were developed around the turn of the 20th century, Cummins said. One of the most critical are lightning mapping arrays, which are networks of electromagnetic sensors that home in on the fiery flashes and measure the energy they release.