Electrical breakdown

From Glossary of Meteorology

electrical breakdown

The sudden decrease of resistivity of a substance when the applied electric field strength rises above a certain threshold value (the substance's dielectric strength).

For air at normal pressures and temperatures, experiment has shown that the breakdown process occurs at a field strength of about 3 × 106 V m-1. This value decreases approximately linearly with pressure, and is dependent upon humidity and traces of foreign gases. In the region of high field strength just ahead of an actively growing leader in a lightning stroke, breakdown occurs in the form of a rapidly moving wave of sudden ionization (electron avalanche). The dielectric strength in a cloud of water drops is less than that in cloud-free humid air.