Thundercloud

In keeping with the first anniversary of this site, I'm introducing a new time-lapse page accompanying this week's blog post. Please click over and have a look!

In August 2013, I spent five hours on the beach of Oxtongue Lake watching this lightning storm illuminate the southeast sky. The clear, if not cloudless, sky darkened and the stars came out, but across the lake one large cloud shone like a lantern. The air was still and there was no rain, at least where I was, but the flashes just kept coming, moving from place to place in the enormous thunderhead.

I didn't have a GoPro yet (I do now!), so these images are me, standing outside and counting, then clicking the shutter....

The odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime (reckoned to be 80 years) as one in 3000. I've been struck twice, which might be because I have low ohms, but it is more likely because I am outside a lot. I wish these odds would translate into lottery winnings! I wasn't burned, but it took at least three days for my heart rate to get back to normal. I was lucky, or unlucky, twice.

The worst place to be during a storm is in an open field, like a golf course, or on open water in an aluminum boat. If you are struck, the US National Weather Service recommends that you crouch: put your feet together, squat down, tuck your head in, and cover your ears. If you are in a group, spread out so that not all of you will be hit. And, it isn't true that touching someone who has been struck by lightning can electrocute you. So, if a companion is struck and not breathing, you can safely perform CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until medical help arrives.

If you are indoors, stay as far away from doors, windows, and exterior walls as you possibly can. Don't touch anything that can conduct electricity such as metal pipes, appliances, or sinks. So, don't do your dishes or take a shower. And finally, avoid electrical appliances and your landline telephone. Cellphones are dangerous as well. The first time I was struck, I was holding a metal fishing tackle box with a wooden handle. Years later, I was struck again when I was talking on the phone during a storm. A man in Orillia was struck by lightning, although fortunately not injured, when he was using a washing machine during a storm.

Lightning storms are created when the warm, moist air from earth rises and meets the colder, dry air from the atmosphere. Negative ions build in large water drops and fall to the bottom of the cloud and positive ions, in the smaller drops, rise to the top. Then, friction causes static electricity to build up in the clouds and it has to be discharged somewhere: that somewhere is a lightning bolt. It's like a charge of static electricity from your hand to a doorknob or other object, but a lightning bolt can comprise up to a hundred million volts of electricity. The "shock" you feel from static in a carpet, for example, is a weak version of the charge that is visible as lightning between the earth and a cloud.

There are a few types of lightning: negative cloud-to-ground charges, which look jagged and point down; positive cloud-to-ground charges, which are smoother looking, with no branches; ground-to-cloud, which looks more like a flash; and lightning inside a cloud, moving around, usually called "sheet lightning." Lightning can also, less commonly, form ribbons, strings of beads, floating balls, tree shapes in the sky, and "bolts from the blue," which are lightning bolts that hit the ground miles away from the related storm. If the storm is hidden by topography, people where the lightning hits the ground may have no idea there is a storm anywhere near. Hence, a bolt from the clear, blue sky.

Some storms move on air currents, and others are stationary. Nikola Tesla, the nineteenth century scientist, was inspired by stationary storms to experiment with transmitting electricity. He measured how far a storm could cast a current, and reasoned that a fixed transmitter could do the same thing. His record for the strongest bolt of man-made lightning still stands....

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