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In the climax of a story I'm writing, the antagonist is flying high in the sky(she has wings) during a thunderstorm, while wearing a full suit of armor. She is struck, and nearly killed. But lightning is only attracted to things touching/connected to the ground. Could being attached to the ground(through a rope tied to her ankle or something) make it work? She is the only one injured by the lightning strike.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the full suit of Armour act akin to a Faraday Cage? In which case, it's possible she wouldn't suffer any ill-effects? $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord, if it's metal, I don't think that the experience of being inside an evaporated hot high-pressure ball of gas is survivable. If carbon fiber, it'll break down long before the discharge current stops. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Rankin $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Dec 27, 2022 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Birds can be struck/killed by lightning while in flight. Why would your flying superhero be any different? $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ Cloud-to-cloud lightnings are very common also, it doesn't have to have anything to do with ground $\endgroup$
    – jpa
    Dec 28, 2022 at 17:25

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As far as lightning is concerned, everything is connected to the ground.

Lightning is a brief one-way current from the ground to a cloud (or sometimes the opposite way). That current is going to preferentially go through good conductors (like metal armor and humans) instead of bad conductors (like air). Lightning can go through air, obviously, but if there's a large conductive object in the vicinity, it's probably going to go through that instead.

Presumably, your character doesn't have armor covering her wings. In that case, I think the most likely path for the lightning strike to take is to go in one wingtip and out the other. She's going to have a bad time. Even if her armor is made of metal, it isn't going to help her here, because the lowest-resistance path from one wingtip to the other goes through her body, not through the armor.

If your character is much luckier, the lightning strike could go entirely through the armor—perhaps into the helmet and out through a shoe. In that case, I think that she'll be totally unharmed by the discharge itself. A lightning bolt only carries about 15 coulombs of charge, and the worst that 15 coulombs will do to a large chunk of metal is to heat it slightly.

The armor won't change the fact that a lightning bolt just struck through the air above and below her. I don't know what the effects of that on her would be; at the very least, it would make an extremely bright flash of light and an extremely loud sound.

(The protective effect of metal armor is sometimes described as a Faraday cage effect. I don't think that's accurate. A Faraday cage blocks electromagnetic radiation by completely enclosing something. A lightning strike isn't electromagnetic radiation, and armor doesn't have to completely enclose you in order to have a protective effect—theoretically, a single wire would work just as well. So, a suit of armor may protect you from lightning, and a suit of armor may act as a Faraday cage, but those are two distinct and not-very-closely-related properties of a suit of armor.)

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  • $\begingroup$ The Faraday cage blocks both. It's true that electromagnetic fields are different from actual currents, but Faraday's original cage was a cubicle wrapped in metal foil, and he demonstrated the concept with high voltage discharges. juliantrubin.com/bigten/faradaycageexperiments.html $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Dec 27, 2022 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ @barbecue That's true. My point is that a current shunt and a Faraday cage, although they are similar concepts, are not the same concept. A current shunt protects an object from having a current flow through it, and a Faraday cage protects an object from having an electric field reach it. A single thick wire would be an effective current shunt but not an effective Faraday cage. A mesh of very thin wires would be an effective Faraday cage but not an effective current shunt. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2022 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'm just saying a faraday cage will always act as a conductor too. Can't really separate them. No such thing as a non-conductive faraday cage. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Dec 28, 2022 at 5:17
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A lightning discharges through the path of minimum resistance.

In a process not well understood, a bidirectional channel of ionized air, called a "leader", is initiated between oppositely-charged regions in a thundercloud. Leaders are electrically conductive channels of ionized gas that propagate through, or are otherwise attracted to, regions with a charge opposite of that of the leader tip.

The positively and negatively charged leaders proceed in opposite directions, positive upwards within the cloud and negative towards the earth. Both ionic channels proceed, in their respective directions, in a number of successive spurts. Each leader "pools" ions at the leading tips, shooting out one or more new leaders, momentarily pooling again to concentrate charged ions, then shooting out another leader. The negative leader continues to propagate and split as it heads downward, often speeding up as it gets closer to the Earth's surface.

Once a conductive channel bridges the air gap between the negative charge excess in the cloud and the positive surface charge excess below, there is a large drop in resistance across the lightning channel.

A large electric charge flows along the plasma channel, from the cloud to the ground, neutralising the positive ground charge as electrons flow away from the strike point to the surrounding area. This huge surge of current creates large radial voltage differences along the surface of the ground.

A connection to ground is not strictly needed, as a human body can be less resistive than the equivalent length of air, acting therefore as a preferential channel for the discharge.

It is somewhat similar to how airplanes get sometimes struck by lightning despite not being wired to the ground.

For sure having a physical connection to the ground will make it for a higher chance of being hit, if it would lower the resistance of the path (e.g. wet or conductive line)

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    $\begingroup$ For a dramatic story in human spaceflight, google “Set SCE to AUX” that became a meme among space nerds. A curious person, who was off-duty but liked to hang around equipment being tested, saw the exact unplanned fail mode that the Apollo 12 computer later went into after two lightning strikes at launch, when he had his EECOM station. He radioed the ad-hoc command to the crew to flip the obscure switch, restoring the telemetry. The procedure was not in the flight operation manual. A great technical parse of the fail mode and recovery, researched by Scott Manley: youtu.be/k4TXNZW3JBo $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ kkm, that is a great story. thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @kkm I didn't mention the Apollo 12 and rockets in general because the plume they leave behind contains charges and might be seen as a sort of grounding $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 28, 2022 at 9:38
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Being hit: Plausible. Surviving it: Plausible?

You might be interested in the story of Zhongpin He, who was sucked into a storm while paragliding and later found dead. Lots of things could have killed him but post-mortem examination revealed he was killed by a lightning strike.

Apparently 9 out of 10 people survive lightning strikes, though injuries can be varied. The biggest danger is cardiac arrest and no one around to deliver CPR.

I couldn't readily find a story of someone being struck in the air and surviving but I don't see why it would be worse than being struck while on the ground (other than the no CPR thing, but not all lightning strikes result in cardiac arrest either -- some end up with no apparent injuries at all). Probably just a roll of the dice if it kills you or not. Burns are a common injury, but of pretty random extent (I found stories of anything from no burns to 3rd degree).

But!

Since we know it can strike paragliders in the air (that's where you're just kind of sitting under a parachute type thing), and we know it's possible to survive a lightning strike, I think your scenario is plausible, and you can give her injuries of anything from severe burns to literally no problems at all.

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    $\begingroup$ what about the actual danger of falling from a great height, once the superhero is struck by lightning and possibly put out of commission (unable to fly)? $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @TheresaKay I'd assume she is able to fly enough to make a controlled landing, although being a superhero, the old "fall a mile and thump onto the ground but survive anyway" would also be fairly standard. OP didn't really specify what all her powers are. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 27, 2022 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ That's true. Doesn't mean surviving is not plausible, was just commenting on "I don't see why it would be worse than being struck while on the ground" - one answer is because it involves a fall. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2022 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would make a very vivid plot point to be injured just enough that she has a harrowing fall and is barely able to collect herself enough to use her wings to not outright die on impact with the ground. $\endgroup$
    – Dúthomhas
    Dec 28, 2022 at 7:39
  • $\begingroup$ If I was going to let her fall a mile and survive, I wouldn't be asking this question in the first place. Thank you for pointing that out. $\endgroup$
    – Nightmare
    Apr 5, 2023 at 21:47
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Lightnings routinely hit airplanes while high off the ground. This is generally safe and the worst damage is some paint getting burnt. If something goes wrong, this is because the pilot is temporarily blinded or disoriented.

If there are conditions for "almost" create a lightning, a conductive object near the possible lightning path can facilitate the electrical discharge by shorting the path as well as concentrating the field lines near its extremes.

From the lightning viewpoint, a bare human body is almost as good a conductor as a metal piece. Wood, concrete, wet stone, chimney smoke - everything is better than air in this regard.

No need to tie your antagonist to the ground in order to get lightning, but it can help a lot. It will be a very high lightning rod.

In regard to survivability:

I can't imagine how wings and full suit of armor play together, but if the wings are covered with metal, we are generally in the airplane hypothesis where the metal protects what's inside very well.

On the other hand, touching the same metal in more than one point and/or bad electrical connections between the metal parts can make the lightning strike over the metal deadly or at least very much shocking (because of the voltage drops over the resistance). There are simple measures that can get your armor lighting-proof, but these should be done in advance and require knowledge.

Even if everything else goes well, the metal parts will get rather hot to touch (20..100kA of the garden variety lightning are not a trivial engineering task) and even worse near joint points. Parts may simply weld to each other in the joints. Not good for aviation.

And then... there are quite a few things in a thunderstorm cloud, besides the lightnings, that can kill someone. Like, e.g. gusty and turbulent winds that can stress your body mechanically up to tearing it apart. Ice pieces in the few kilogram range (pretty much normal, this is what hail looks like when inside the cloud core) aren't safe either.

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Related solution to the wing-armor-survivability issue is to just have metal covering over the main joints of the wings that connects to the rest of the suit, kind of like flashings but for wings.

It would allow the current to never actually go through the wings, because the metal armor will attract the current better than wet plumage.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah in the reading I did, they talked about how lightning strikes mostly are non-fatal because your skin conducts it around you moreso than through you. And it's blazingly hot but for such a short time that it may or may not cause burns of random degrees. I imagine metal armor would actually help with the whole "conduct it around you, not through you" thing. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Dec 28, 2022 at 0:50

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