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Imagine you have a weather-controlling device that you use to eliminate all lightning strikes. They're just too dangerous. What happens to the earth? Does lightning serve a necessary purpose to any ecosystems?

My naive conception of lightning is that it's basically a byproduct of weather, but does it serve a necessary purpose of equalizing electric charge, with no natural substitute? In this case, it seems like stopping all lightning strikes would be basically impossible without some kind of artificial superstructure to take over this role.

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    $\begingroup$ Food for thought - some climates have very few lightnings. In the UK, for example, you may only get see to one every couple of years or so. I'm not very well versed in exactly the reason why but perhaps if you changed the climate everywhere to match the criteria for "no lightning", then it's doable. But it also means you've changed the global weather pattern. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Nov 4 '19 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I've been woken by a few this year alone. But we haven't had a really impressive storm (in terms of lightning) for a while. One year, on holiday at Interlarken, we had a lightning storm roll through the valley every.. single day. It was only a small one each time though, it cleared the sky of everything, and the views from the mountain tops were amazing - looking down on a storm was also a novel experience. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Nov 5 '19 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ: well, I can't speak for every part of the UK, but I certainly hear thunder a lot more frequently than every couple of years or so. I don't see lightning very often, true, because I have an indoor job and know enough to come in out of the rain ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 5 '19 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ I've grown up in an area with lots of lightning and thunder around summertime, and after I moved to the UK I only saw lightning & hear thunder a couple of time in the 6 years I'm here, most of them this and last year. $\endgroup$ – SztupY Nov 5 '19 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ No time for an answer right now (and I won't mind if someone takes this to incorporate into their own answer) Lightning plays a (small but not insignificant) role in fixing nitrogen. see: The Nitrogen Cycle No more lightning, means decreased nitrogen bio-availability. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Nov 5 '19 at 17:41
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For one thing, natural bushlands would get overgrown.

Anyone who listens to world news knows that the south west of the US; California and Arizona especially, are prone to bushfires. So is most of the Australian outback where there is natural bushland areas. In Australia particularly, some species of tree are so integrated with the natural fire cycle that their seeds can't germinate without fire having swept through an area.

Now on the face of it one might say 'well good news! Just one more thing that abolishing lightning solves!' but that is a very narrow view of things.

For hundreds of millions of years (at least), fires have been started by lightning strikes and they literally clear out a lot of dead wood. The clean up the dead material on the floor of the forests and bushlands, and open up areas for new generations of plants and trees to start their own cycle of growth. This allows in part for evolution to be accelerated ever so slightly and for plant life to adapt to a planet changing on geological time scales. It also in turn wipes out a lot of other life that relies on the bushland but even that regrows with a new generation moving in to inhabit the bushland after it has restored itself.

To be sure, these lightning strikes can be massively dangerous which is why backburning huge tracts of land in the winter and early spring times (when the weather is not so hot and the fires are easier to contain) is such a good idea, and in a world without lightning every wildfire would have to be deliberately lit, even if done so by accident. Not doing so, because lightning is no longer an issue, would just allow a fuel load in bushland to grow to a point where a cigarette butt thoughtlessly tossed out a car window in the wrong place at the wrong time of year could be catastrophic. So, if anything, we would have to be MORE careful in our management of fire prone areas, not less.

As for the static electricity component, yes; lightning is a natural discharge of static electricity to reassert an equilibrium. That said, eliminating lightning would best be done by eliminating the ability to pick up that imbalance in static electrical charges in the first place, so it's unclear what impact the removal of lightning could have without removing the possibility of that imbalance would be, or even if it is possible to do.

All that said, lightning does seem to serve a useful function for natural bushlands across the world and as such removing it would remove a natural function of renewal for such lands.

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  • $\begingroup$ Natural fires are generally started by lightning, with a very small percentage started by spontaneous combustion of dry fuel such as sawdust and leaves. — would spontaneous combustion increase dramatically? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Nov 5 '19 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ @gerrit possibly, but only because the lightning would no longer get to the fuel load first. The problem with spontaneous combustion is that it couldn't replace lightning as a combustion source to the same scale because it requires far less common conditions than we currently see that generates lightning. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Nov 5 '19 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ You can see how California has solved this problem: The majority of bush fires there are started by electricity company property. E.g., 2015 California Forestry figures put about half the fires as caused by electrical equipment; or businessinsider.com/… quoting utility PG&E causing 1500 separate fires in 6years. $\endgroup$ – user3445853 Nov 5 '19 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Note that bush fires are actually required for the growth of some plants: See my answer here $\endgroup$ – Bee Nov 6 '19 at 12:14
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Ozone levels in the atmosphere would be reduced

Lightning is the major producer of ozone and NOx in the atmosphere. No lightning means less ozone means more UV light gets through.

Basically life on the planet would get much harder to survive.

lightnings-role-in-ozone-formation

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    $\begingroup$ What timescale would this happen on? Would significant depletion of the ozone layer take a matter of weeks, or years, or millennia? $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Nov 5 '19 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is based on a misunderstanding. Lightning may be the largest source of ozone in the troposphere, but most of the ozone is in the stratosphere. The stratospheric ozone is known as the ozone layer and is essential for the survival of most land-based lifeforms. Stratospheric ozone is produced by the Chapman cycle, which has nothing to do with lightning. Tropospheric ozone, on the other hand, has a negative health impact, so it would be positive if it decreased. $\endgroup$ – jkej Nov 5 '19 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Both ozone and NOx has lifetimes on the order of a day or so in the troposphere, so the "new normal" would probably be reached no later than a couple of days after lightning was stopped. I say probably, because tropospheric chemistry is a complex system and there may be significant feedback mechanisms on longer timescales. The ozone layer would most likely be unaffected though, as explained in my previous comment. $\endgroup$ – jkej Nov 5 '19 at 12:38
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Many plants won't grow as well. Lightning converts atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, which in turn react with water to produce nitric acid. Nitric acid and related nitrates are a major source of nitrogen for plants.

This isn't an "end of life as we know it" scenario because there are many other methods of nitrogen fixation (eg. the well-known nitrogen-fixing bacteria found growing on legume roots), but it's not something you can ignore, either.

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Effect of eliminating lightning depends on how you eliminate it, b/c lightning is a byproduct of rain, which is in turn essential part of the water cycle and essential to life. I bet you do not want to eliminate rain along with lightning.

My suggestion for minimally invasive method is harvesting static electricity from atmosphere for human use. Every mile, there is a "lightning rod", or rather a balloon connected by a cable to the ground station. Any static electricity that is accumulated in the atmosphere flows down the cable to the ground station, and is stored or used to power the grid. Our current technology would make it very expensive, but your world is different.

Then you have no lightning hitting the ground in the area covered by this static electricity balloons. You will have to burn the bush periodically as others said, and if you keep the area limited, you do not have to worry about ozone and NO effects.

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Gamma Radiation would be reduced

It was discovered that lightning storms produce some gamma rays. I don't know how much mutation effect this has on surface biology, but it's more than zero. Some mutation is required for ongoing evolution.

https://phys.org/news/2017-10-lightning-afterglow-gamma.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_gamma-ray_flash

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