How much do You know about Lightning?

     Try answering these questions: Is there such a thing as heat lightning? Can lightning strike the same place twice? Can lightning occur without thunder? What is fossil lightning? Are you really safe in your car during a storm?

     The time of summer storms are fast approaching. Each year in the US, about 96 people are struck and killed by lightning. Five to thirty times that number are struck and injured! That may not be a very large number, considering how many people are in this country, but if you are one of them, lightning can take on new meaning! There are precautions you can take if you are in a storm, and it is often ignorance which leads to injury. How much do you know about this phenomenon?

    Lightning is an electrical discharge produced by thunderstorms. It is often mistakenly believed that lightning can occur without thunder, some folks even insist that they have seen it. This is because the sound of thunder rarely travels farther than ten miles. It may travel farther across valleys, but in lowlands or at sea, ten miles is the limit. So you are seeing the lightning but are unable to hear the thunder associated with it due to distance.
Thunder is the result of lightning, therefore one without the other is impossible. Thunder occurs from the expansion of super-heated air along the path of the lightning flash. The air explodes outwards and sends pressure waves reverberating through the surrounding clouds.

     Directly related to the idea of lightning without thunder is the idea of heat lightning. I've often noticed some people looking outside at an approaching storm and noticing such distant lightning without the rumble of thunder. They will undoubtedly respond "oh it's ok, it's only heat lightning." I don't know where this term came from, but there is no such thing as "heat lightning." Some folks think this "heat lightning" is harmless, perhaps because they do not hear thunder, or perhaps because they don't see an actual streak of lightning but rather a not-so-bright flash. This phenomena, known as lightning (yes, its just plain old lightning!) is simply lightning reflected by clouds from distant thunderstorms occurring beyond the horizon. It is the distance factor which makes this lightning harmless!

   That lightning is bright is of no debate, but you might not be aware that lightning is also very hot. The air in the center of a lightning bolt is estimated to be as hot as 54,000 degrees F. That is about six times hotter than the surface of the Sun! It is this kind of heat and power that create fossilized lightning, called a fulgerite. A fulgerite forms when a powerful lightning bolt melts the soil (most often sandy) into a glass like state. A few years ago there was a record sized fulgerit in Michigan. It measured fifteen feet in length and was a whitish-green color. Fulgerites can also be seen at the Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park in Colorado.

     That lightning can strike the same place twice is without a doubt. The Empire State Building gets hit about two dozen times per year! One bad storm saw lightning strike the building fifteen times in twenty minutes.

     Are you really safe in your car during a storm? I once heard of a woman who hated and feared storms so much that every time it stormed she would make her husband get into the car and drive her around until the storm was over! Generally you are safe in your car. The rubber tires provide some shielding but it is the metal body of the car (which provides a safe path to ground for the lightning) which provides the real safety.  This does not mean your car cannot be struck by lightning however, and it is a terrifying event. A car in Des Moines Iowa was struck directly by a bolt of lightning. The car stopped dead, its electrical systems fried. The occupants were uninjured, but the car had small holes in its body, the tires went flat and there was a yard wide crater beneath the car!  Traveling in your car during a storm is still not wise and you should not do so unless necessary. I had a friend who worked for the telephone company and who was on duty during a severe storm. The lightning posed no direct threat this time, but he was killed from a falling tree.
   The odds of being struck and killed by lightning are actually quite slim, about 350,000 to 1. You are fifty times more likely to be struck and killed by a motor vehicle.  So what can you do to decrease your chances even more? When a storm approaches, seek shelter in a house or building. Avoid contact with conductors of electricity such as pipes (don't shower,) stoves (don't cook,) and wires (don't use the telephone.) If you cannot get into a building, find shelter under a cliff, in a cave, or some low lying area (even a roadside ditch.) Avoid tall isolated objects such as lone trees, telephone poles, flagpoles etc. A grove of small trees is quite safe if you stay away from the edge. Avoid water and stay off things like lawn mowers and tractors. If you are out in the open with other people, stand several meters apart. Though it is unlikely, should your hair suddenly stand on end, it could indicate lightning about ready to strike that area, immediately drop to the ground. Do not lie on the ground, but crouch, placing your hands on your knees, bending forward. Doing this will make you a smaller target.

     Lightning can be a very beautiful phenomena to watch and I admit to being one of its admirers. The key to this romance however, is common sense and safety!

Copyright © 1995 - 2008
Kathy Miles, Author, and Chuck Peters, Systems Administrator
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