Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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Flashovers :: Lightning and Power Lines

High-Tension Tower
Flashover Flashover
A lightning bolt strikes one of the live power lines, then jumps across an insulator to reach the grounded tower.
The section of lightning channel across the insulator acts as a conductor, causing a short circuit.
Man-made power from the live wire begins flowing through the section of old lightning channel in an intensely bright arc.
Circuit breakers at a substation detect the short, then cut power to the affected line momentarily to stop the arc.


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Flashovers are a type of fault, or short circuit, caused by a lightning strike to a live electrical system. Faults on power lines involve tremendous levels of current and cause bright arcing, showers of sparks, and loud bangs and buzzing sounds. Arcs from a large fault can illuminate the entire sky nearby, and are often visible for miles.

Flashover in Pittsburgh
Lightning-triggered flashover in Pittsburgh visible from miles away

Lightning-triggered flashovers aren't the only causes of faults. Such a short circuit will occur anytime power lines are allowed to touch each other or a well-grounded object. Faults occur when high winds blow wires into one another, trees fall across lines, snow and ice snap wires in two, or an unfortunate squirrel or bird bridges the gap across two live connections. They are often visible in video footage of tornadoes, as the high winds in the vortex cause energized power lines to touch each other and/or the ground. storm chasers and weather enthusiasts often use the term 'power flash' to refer to the intense arcs from these faults.

Flashover in St. Louis
Multiple lightning-triggered flashovers in St. Louis

Since power line faults are extremely bright, they are often mistaken for lightning as they light up the sky with their characteristic bluish-green glow. In fact, many reports of 'ball lightning' have been found to be nothing more than a lightning-caused flashover.

Flashovers have been around as long as man-made electricity. They can occur anywhere along power lines- at transformers, poles, towers, and substations. Arcing from flashovers can cause extensive damage to electrical equipment, even more so than the lightning than caused them. As a result, power companies have performed years of research to help prevent the effects of this phenomenon.

Grounded shield wires are often strung along the tops of high-tension towers with the intention of intercepting a lightning strike and protecting the live conductor wires. However, a lightning strike to a shield wire may still cause flashovers across insulators. Insufficient grounding of the towers may allow voltage from a strike to 'overflow' from the towers to the live wires via a spark - initiating a flashover as described above.

Storm chaser and photographer Dan Robinson
About the Author: Dan Robinson has been a storm chaser, photographer and cameraman for 30 years. His career has involved traveling around the country covering the most extreme weather on the planet including tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, floods and winter storms. Dan has been extensively published in newspapers, magazines, web articles and more, and has both supplied footage for and appeared in numerous television productions and newscasts. He has also been involved in the research community, providing material for published scientific journal papers on tornadoes and lightning. Dan also holds an active Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA (Part 107) for commercial drone operation.

See Also:

Power arcs caused by storm events
The 'real story' behind the flashes mistakenly called 'exploding transformers'.

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