Lightning occurs because during a storm, static electricity is created between water droplets in warm air meeting ice crystals in cold air. Updrafts carry positively-charged particles upwards to the top of clouds while downdrafts carry negatively charged particles downward. Eventually, there must be a release of this building static imbalance, and lightning accomplishes this by striking between clouds or between clouds and the ground.
Thunder occurs because lightning is so hot, heating the air around it to about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the sun. This intense heat causes a rapid air pressure increase, which radiates outward from the lightning strike and causes the audio effect we know as thunder.
Although both are produced by the same event, lightning is seen before thunder is heard because light travels much faster than sound, about 300,000,000 meters/sec vs. 343 meters/sec.
A recent volcano eruption in the South Pacific led to over 400,000 recorded nearby lightning strikes, since lots of static electricity builds up among the ash and particles sent airborne after such eruptions.
The term “steal my thunder” has a unique origin story. In 1704, British playwright John Dennis developed a new method to crate a thunder sound for his play. The play was unsuccessful and cut short, but the theater re-used the thunder technique for a run of Macbeth. The bitter playwright exclaimed something to the effect of “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”
Amazingly, about 90% of lightning strike victims survive, but survivors often suffer from lingering disabilities as a result of the massive shock’s effect on the brain and body.
You might not see lightning everyday, but it’s happening somewhere. Worldwide, the frequency of lightning strikes is about 44 per second, or 1.4 billion strikes per year.