There’s a smell of ozone in the air and thunder booms all around. Every now and then the sky glows in brilliant shades of pink and purple, while flashes of lightning light up the sky. It’s a scene worth capturing for sure, but as one man discovered, it’s not one worth risking your life for.
Nothing on earth is more inspiring than the mighty power of nature. At its most violent, there are volcanoes erupting with lava and ash, earthquakes that topple buildings and split the ground, and mighty tsunamis that carry off everything in their path. Fortunately, these are relatively rare occurrences.
It doesn’t just take events like floods and hurricanes to impress on us how potent nature is. We can see it all around us every day. When you think about it, even a decent sunrise or sunset is pretty spectacular. Probably one of the most impressive natural displays most of us will experience, though, is an exciting thunderstorm.
There is still a certain amount of mystery surrounding thunderstorms, or electrical storms as they are also known. We know that they occur when a certain type of cloud called a cumulonimbus gathers. They’re also usually, but not always, accompanied by strong winds and precipitation. It’s generally easy to tell when a storm is on the way.
Within these heavy cumulonimbus clouds, an electrical charge builds. The higher parts of the clouds are positively charged, while the lower regions are negatively charged. There isn’t a consensus on exactly how this happens, but the most likely explanation involves colliding particles of moisture.
The effect of water droplets or ice crystals smashing into each other is what separates the positive and negative electrons. Once the two have reached a certain point of separation, they try to come together again, to neutralize. It’s this process that ends up creating the sparks that become lightning.
What we see as one lightning strike may in fact be up to 40 strikes in the same spot in rapid succession. Exactly where lightning will strike is never clear beforehand. Although the odds are it will hit the most elevated object available, that’s not always what happens. It’s this uncertainty that makes lightning so dangerous.
Norwegian Daniel Modøl recently had a rather disturbing lesson on the unpredictability of lightning. Thirty-eight-year-old Modøl has lived in the same house in the coastal municipality of Gjerstad, Norway, for more than a decade. One day in August 2017 he and a friend decided to step outside to admire a passing thunderstorm. It was an impressive sight so he decided to film it.
Modøl told a local TV station that the lightning was flashing on the horizon when he went out onto his deck. In the footage he shot, it seems as if the storm is moving away; certainly, all is pretty quiet in the immediate area. That is until, seemingly from nowhere, the lightning strikes.
In Modøl’s film, a loud explosion, almost like a gunshot, is heard. Clumps of grass and rocks are blasted from the ground, landing on the deck where Modøl stands. His shock, meanwhile, is obvious as the camera suddenly jolts upwards before pointing towards his now blackened and smoke-filled garden.
Modøl and his friend subsequently retreat back into the house, where they find that an electrical socket has been been blown out by the surge. There are scorch marks on the wall around it. Then, stepping back out onto the patio, they briefly survey the aftermath of the strike before deciding that it’s wiser to go back inside.
The lightning struck just 20 feet away from where he’d been standing. It was powerful enough to not only blow out an electrical socket inside the house, but also stop a ceiling fan. The crater in his garden, meanwhile, served as evidence of Modøl’s lucky escape. Any closer and it could have been a different story. Since it’s a myth that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, Modøl may think twice about filming a storm from his patio again.
Lightning at close quarters is scary, but according to scientists we’re not scared enough. They say that because lightning often strikes at least two spots at the same time, we’re 45 percent more likely to be hit than we usually think. In fact, in the United States, only extremely hot temperatures and floods cause more weather-related deaths than lightning.
Globally, about 24,000 people die each year from being struck by lightning, the majority of whom live in developing countries. Numbers are much lower in the U.S., where an average of 40 people a year die and 400 are injured. Although that makes it an extremely rare cause of death, then, it may be worth thinking about when the next storm hits.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lightning safety guidelines, there is no safe outdoor space during an electrical storm. The best thing to do is to head for cover, preferably in a large building. Failing that, a car with the windows wound up is your best bet. As Modøl’s video shows, don’t assume a storm has moved off too early. Wait inside at least half an hour after the last thunder rumbles.
One of the things NOAA says you should definitely not do is stay on higher ground. It is also a bad idea to shelter under a solitary tree or cliff, or to lie down. Give a wide berth to electrical conductors such as communications towers, power lines and metal poles. If you’re swimming, get out of the water and move as far away from it as you can.
For those unlucky enough to be hit by lightning, there are three hazards. One is electricity. Surprisingly, a direct hit doesn’t always mean death, since the body’s own electrical resistance may deflect the charge onto the ground. The heat can scorch skin tissue and cause air in the lungs to expand, damaging the lungs and chest. Also, shock waves from the explosion can cause concussion and affect hearing.
Furthermore, you don’t necessarily need to suffer a direct hit for lightning to injure or kill you. Lightning can also “splash” a person from an object nearby, or electrify the ground they’re standing on. In this way many people can be injured at one time. An entire soccer team, 11 people, died in 1998 when a bolt of lightning struck a field in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Of course, lightning doesn’t have to actually strike people at all to be a danger. When lightning hit an electrical substation near the Hudson River in 1977, it led to a 25-hour blackout. The result was violent rioting and looting throughout New York City. In 1769, meanwhile, 3,000 people were killed after a lightning strike ignited 207,000 pounds of gunpowder and set the Italian city of Brescia on fire.
A recent study says that lightning flashes in the United States may increase by 50 percent over the next 100 years. Since about half of all wildfires are caused by lightning, that’s a worrying prediction. The study, published in Science, blames climate change for the increased storm activity. It’s certainly not good news for anyone suffering the third most common phobia in the U.S., astraphobia, the fear of lightning.