Thursday, August 7, 2008

Enlightening about Lightning

In Connecticut today, we had three separate waves of thunderstorms, the last of which is still going. Earlier I was near enough to a lightning strike that the thunder had no rumble; it was a bomb-like detonation, right after the flash.

Having recently moved from San Francisco, where thunderstorms are rare, the summer thunderstorms in New England are still novel for me. According to statistics from the National Lightning Detection Network, Connecticut has between five and six times the lightning flashes per square mile as California.

Yet that’s only enough to rank Connecticut 36th among U.S. states for cloud-to-ground flash densities. The southeast dominates the top five, with Florida leading by a substantial margin. (Florida has seven times Connecticut’s lightening flashes per square mile. It also leads the nation in lightning deaths.)

Having addressed where you’re likely to see lightning, we might as well also cover the following:

People ask, “Who is most likely to be struck by lightning?” Something stirs in the mind about metal objects, and you might guess golfers, out there on the open fairways with four-irons raised to the sky, or fisherman clutching their metal rods. But you might not think of farmers, perched on their tractors and insulated by rubber tires, and, in fact, farmers it is. Where we need protection is overhead, not on the ground. Closed vehicles act as Faraday cages — named after Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century British physicist and chemist, who specialized in electromagnetism — and are a good choice for cover, because the metal that encases them channels the charge into the ground. As it descends to earth, lightning current is drawn to isolated objects, anything taller than others in its field. This might be a lone tree, a skyscraper, a mound of granite in a riverbed, or you in your small craft on open water. Farmers are vulnerable because of where they are when they’re out in their fields — the tallest object in an open space, plowing or haying as the summer day heats up.

The quote is from a fine essay by Jill Frayne in the Canadian magazine The Walrus. In addition to enlightening us about the science of lightning, she narrates a few close encounters: “The strike shot through the radio antenna, exploded in the living room into a blue fireball that roared down the hall, lifting up the linoleum runner by the tacks, ripping the nails out of the floor, splintering the house walls as fine as kindling before it ran off over the bedrock outside and died.”

Here’s the link again. It’s a good read.

And with that, I’ll post this before the power goes out.

[The image is from Wikipedia’s Lightning article.]

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