National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Lightning and Thunder Experiments



  • Wint-O-Green or Pep-O-Mint lifesavers
  • dark room
  • mirror

PROCESS: Go to a really dark room and stand in front of the mirror. Wait a few minutes until your eyes get accustomed to the darkness. Put a Wint-O-Green or a Pep-O-Mint lifesaver in your mouth. While keeping your mouth open, break the lifesaver up with your teeth and look for sparks. If you do it right, you should see bluish flashes of light.

EXPLANATION: Why does this happen? When you break the lifesaver apart, you’re breaking apart sugars inside the candy. The sugars release little electrical charges in the air. These charges attract the oppositely charged nitrogen in the air. When the two meet, they react in a tiny spark that you can see.  



  • aluminum pie pan
  • small piece of wool fabric
  • styrofoam plate
  • pencil with a new eraser
  • thumbtack

PROCESS: Push the thumbtack through the center of the aluminum pie pan from the bottom Push the eraser end of the pencil into the thumbtack. Put the styrofoam plate upside-down on a table. Quickly, rub the underneath of the plate with the wool for a couple of minutes. Pick up the aluminum pie pan using the pencil as a handle and place it on top of the upside-down styrofoam plate that you were just rubbing with the wool. Touch the aluminum pie pan with your finger. You should feel a shock. If you don’t feel anything, try rubbing the styrofoam plate again. Once you feel the shock, try turning the lights out before you touch the pan again. Check out what you see! You should see a spark!!

EXPLANATION: Why does this happen? It’s all about static electricity. Lightning happens when the negative charges, which are called electrons, in the bottom of the cloud or in this experiment your finger are attracted to the positive charges, which are called protons, in the ground or in this experiment the aluminum pie pan. The resulting spark is like a mini lightning bolt.  



  • balloon

PROCESS: Blow up the balloon and tie it. Rub it against your hair on top of your head. Watch what happens! Your hair will stick up! *This also happens when you take off your wool hat in the wintertime. You usually notice static electricity in the winter when the air is very dry. During the summer, the air is more humid. The water in the air helps electrons move off you more quickly, so you can not build up as big of a charge.

EXPLANATION: Why does this happen? It’s because of static electricity! When you rub the balloon on your hair, you’re covering it with little negative charges. Now that each of the hairs has the same charge, they want to repel each other. In other words, the hairs try to get as far away from each other as possible. The farthest they can get is by standing up and away from each other. Talk about a bad hair day!



  • fluorescent light bulb
  • rubber balloon

PROCESS: Turn all of the lights off in the room. (The darker the better!) Rub the balloon on your hair for several seconds. Then hold the statically charged balloon near the end of the light bulb. This will illuminate the bulb. Repeat the demonstration as many times as desired. EXPLANATION: When you rub the balloon on your hair, the balloon builds up an electrical charge (static electricity). Touching the charged balloon to the end of the fluorescent light bulb causes the electrical charge to jump from the balloon to the bulb. This is what illuminates the light bulb. Lightning is an electrical discharge within a thunderstorm. As the storm develops, the clouds become charged with electricity. Scientists are still not sure exactly what causes this, but they do know that when the voltage becomes high enough for the electricity to leap across the air from one place to another, lightning flashes! Lightning can spark within a cloud, from one cloud to another, from a cloud to the ground, or from the ground to a cloud.  



  • balloon
  • a piece of wool, nylon or fur
  • wall

PROCESS: Blow up the balloon and tie it. Rub the balloon with your piece of wool, nylon or fur quickly. Put the balloon against the wall and let go. Watch what happens. It should stick to the wall.

EXPLANATION: Why does this happen? When you rub the balloon, you’re covering it with little negative charges. The negative charges are attracted to the positive charges that are in the wall. That’s why the balloon ‘sticks’ to the wall.  



  • comb
  • a piece of wool, nylon or fur

PROCESS: Rub a comb quickly against the piece of wool, nylon or fur for about a minute Hold the comb near a trickle of water from a faucet. The charged comb should attract the water toward it.

EXPLANATION: Why does this happen? By rubbing the comb, you’re covering it with little negative charges. The negative charges are attracted to the positive charges against the water.



  • brown paper lunch bag

PROCESS: Blow into the brown paper lunch bag and fill it up with air. Twist the open end and close with your hand. Quickly hit the bag with your free hand.

EXPLANATION: Hitting the bag causes the air inside the bag to compress so quickly that the pressure breaks the bag. The air rushes out and pushes the air outside away from the bag. The air continues to move forward in a wave. When the moving air reaches your ear, you hear a sound. Thunder is produced in a similar way. As lightning strikes, energy is given off that heat the air through which it passes. This heated air quickly expands producing energetic waves of air resulting in a sound called thunder.  



  • clear, plastic container (size of shoebox)
  • red food coloring
  • ice cubes made with blue food coloring

PROCESS: Fill the plastic container two-thirds full with lukewarm water Let the water sit for one minute. Place a blue ice cube at one end of the plastic container. Add three drops of red food coloring to the water at the other end of the plastic container. Watch what happens.

EXPLANATION: The blue and cold water sinks while the red and warm water rises. This happens because of convection. The blue water represents the cold air mass and the red water represents the warm, unstable air mass. A thunderstorm is caused by unstable air and convection plays an important part. A body of warm air is forced to rise by an approaching cold front therefore thunderstorm’s form.