Lightning

February 02, 2022

Hidden among the World News of my local paper I noticed an article on a lightning bolt that occurred during 2020 that set a new world record.  The single flash extended 477.2 miles across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in April 2020, the World Meteorological Organization said Monday.  That beat the old record set in 2018 in Brazil of 440.6 miles.  Also in 2020, a single lightning flash over Uruguay and northern Argentina lasted 17.1 seconds, nipping the old record of 16.7 seconds.  Normally lightning does not stretch farther than 10 miles and lasts less than a second, said Arizona State University’s Randall Cerveny, chief of records confirmation for the meteorological organization.  Both flashes were cloud-to-cloud and several thousand feet above the ground, so no one was in danger.  Neither was linked to climate change.  The two flashes were spotted and confirmed by new satellite tracking technology.  Both regions are two of the few places in the world prone to the intense storms that produce “megaflashes”.  It seems appropriate that both events occurred in 2020.

When I looked online, I found that lightning is a form of electricity.  Thunderclouds are made up of cold air that forms ice crystals and warm air that forms water droplets.  During a storm, these crystals and water droplets collide to create an electrical charge in the clouds.  The charges separate with the positive charges or protons at the top of the cloud and the negative charges or electrons at the bottom.  When the negative charge gets strong enough, energy is released from the cloud and goes through the air to a place with an opposite charge, such as the ground, a tree, or even a person.  Lightning kills an average of 49 people each year in the US, and hundreds more are injured.  Some survivors suffer lifelong neurological damage.  According to the National Weather Service, as lightning passes through air, it can heat the air to 50,000F (27,760C), or about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun. 

I remember learning about lightning growing up.  My first experience was at Boy Scout camp where we encountered a thunderstorm.  The Scout Master taught us to listen for the thunder to see how far the lightning was away.  Since sound travels at 820 feet per second (252.3 mps), you can count the seconds since the flash and times the seconds since you hear the sound by 820.  It takes sound just under 6.5 seconds to travel a mile (1.5 kilometers).  The second learning came while I was on a family hike.  We were above the tree line when a lightning storm overtook us.  That meant we were the “tallest tree” on the side of the mountain.  There were precarious moments until we escaped into the forest below.

Thoughts:  Lightning strikes somewhere in the US nearly 25 million times a year.  Although summer months are the prime season for lightning, people can get struck any time of the year.  John Jensenius is a lightning specialist for the National Weather Service and says 80 percent of lightning fatalities occur in men.  He suggested several possible explanations.  Either men are unaware of the dangers associated with lightning (doubt it), are more likely to be in vulnerable outdoor situations (choose unprotection), or they are unwilling to be inconvenienced by the threat (better things to do).  I believe the same could apply for not getting a vaccine.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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