I have always been impressed with the power of lightning — sometimes when I least expected it.
I remember when our family was hiking in the mountains around Big Sky, MT. It started out as a nice sunny day but, as the afternoon wore on and we were almost above treeline, we saw big clouds billowing up in the sky. We were aware of the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains but, what we were unaware of was how quickly they can develop. It wasn’t long before thunder and lightning filled the air all around us and we felt helpless to do anything but to stay low to the ground to avoid becoming lightning rods. To put it boldly, we were scared to death.
Have you ever been up in a fire tower during a lightning storm? I haven’t, but I have two friends who have.
Local resident and friend Manny Stein manned the Fifield fire tower in the Chequamegon National Forest near Fifield from the 1950s to early 1970s. The tower is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Here is Manny’s story about his experiences with lightning in that tower.
“Most of the bad storms came through in mid-summer or early spring. You couldn’t come down until you got rain. You sat on a stool that had glass insulators on the bottom. They were there to protect you if lightning struck the tower. You just had to sit there and hope it [the storm] would pass quickly. Oh my, that was scary. There would be a big bang—just like a cannon going off. Then when it’d hit, I wondered why I was doing this job! The tower was grounded on all four corners, and it never really hurt anything. You’d think it would blow the cab right off the tower, but of course it never did.”
Good friend Karin Connelly spends several days each summer volunteering as a fire lookout to help protect Montana’s beautiful forests around Glacier National Park. Out west, more than here in the Lake States, lightning tends to cause more forest fires. One of her job perks was that she gets to see wonderful sunset and sunrises from her tower perch, but also incredible lightning storms which can be intimidating while up in a tower. This summer she shared with me some of her most outstanding lightning sightings which inspired me to find out more about this powerful force of Nature . Here is a nice summary from National Geographic.
“Lightning is an electrical discharge caused by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within the clouds themselves. Most lightning occurs within the clouds, but cloud-to-ground lightning bolts are common and of most concern to us most in terms of our own safety. About 100 lightning bolts strike Earth’s surface every single second—yet their power is extraordinary. Each bolt can contain up to one billion volts of electricity.
During a storm, colliding particles of rain, ice, or snow inside storm clouds increase the imbalance between negatively charged storm clouds and the positively charged ground, steeples, towers, trees, and the Earth itself. This creates an imbalance that nature seeks to remedy by passing current between the negative and positive charges. It is best if you aren’t in between to help balance out the charges, a good reason to not be out on golf courses or standing under a tree!
Lightning is not only spectacular, it’s dangerous. Lightning strikes during thunderstorms kill more Americans each year than either tornadoes or hurricanes. About 2,000 people are killed worldwide by lightning each year. Hundreds more survive strikes but suffer from a variety of lasting symptoms, including memory loss, dizziness, weakness, numbness, and other life-altering ailments. Strikes can cause cardiac arrest and severe burns, but 9 of every 10 people survive. The average American has about a 1 in 5,000 chance of being struck by lightning during a lifetime.
Lightning's extreme heat will vaporize the water inside a tree, creating steam that may blow the tree apart. Cars are havens from lightning. Tires conduct current, as do metal frames that carry a charge harmlessly to the ground.
Many houses are grounded by rods and other protection that conduct a lightning bolt's electricity harmlessly to the ground. Grounded buildings offer protection, but occupants who touch running water or use a landline phone may be shocked by conducted electricity.”
If you want a challenge, try to figure how to harness the energy in lightning. My son, since he was a little boy, has always been trying to figure that out. The technology we have today still is not adequate to harness and store lightning energy efficiently. And, if you are one who thinks lightning can’t strike in the same place twice, more power to you, because it does!