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Is lighting "attracted" to metal or water? Does it seek out certain neighborhoods? Find out the truth....

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Lightning strike
A nearby lightning strike ripped a 125-foot trench in the ground and took the bark off this tree.

Two-thirds of all lightning strikes occur during the months of June, July and August.  On the afternoon of July 6th, Woodstock resident Ellie Donahue was startled by loud clap of thunder. “Lightning struck and shattered the top of a telephone pole in front of our house,” said Donahue. “The electrical current ripped a 125 foot long trench through the ground in the woods, shredding roots and splitting a large tree down the middle.”   

John Jensenius, a lightning safety expert for the National Weather Service, says trenches in the soil are formed when a lightning bolt heats up moisture in the ground, causing a steam explosion.  Temperatures in a lightning bolt can reach 50,000 degrees F, which is five times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

Lightning is not only hot – it packs a lot of power.  A typical bolt carries several hundred million volts of electricity and 20,000-30,000 amps. In comparison, household current is only about 120 volts and 15-20 amps.  Imagine that amperage coursing through your body. 

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a report about a Vancouver man who had just such a shocking experience. He was jogging during a thunderstorm when lightning hit a nearby tree. The side flash hurled him 8 feet into the air.  (Lightning can be deadly more than 60 feet from the strike point.  Only 5% of victims are hit directly by lightning.) He would have been injured regardless, but sweat combined with an iPod he was wearing channeled the heat and power, causing burns, ruptured ear drums, and a fractured lower jaw (probably as a result of muscle contractions.)  A teenage girl in London suffered severe injuries when she was hit by lightning while using a cell phone outside during a storm. 

Lighting strike telephone pole.
Lightning shattered the top of this telephone pole.

The main point of these stories is that being outdoors in a thunderstorm, with or without an iPod or cell phone, is simply NOT safe.  “When thunder roars, go indoors” says William Roeder, an Air Force meteorologist.  If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance.  Lightning can land as far as 6 to 10 miles away from an area where it is raining. 

These types of incidents often lead people to conclude that lightning seeks out metal. Not so, says lightning mythbuster Ron Holle, a meteorologist with Vasalia, Inc. This common misconception confuses cause with effect.  While metal (and water) are effective conductors of electricity, they do not attract lightning. 

Lighting occurs as a result of meteorological processes that take place about 15,000–20,000 feet above the ground.  Lightning does not "decide" where to strike until the leader coming down from the cloud is about 100 feet from the ground or object that is struck.  In a cloud-to-ground strike, lightning will most likely strike the tallest object in the immediate area.  This could be a pole, steeple, or building; all of which could contain some metal.  In most instances though, the tallest object is a tree. Of course trees are not metallic, but they get hit all the time.  

The Donahue’s property has been hit before.  Their well pump has been electrocuted twice.  In 2005, a home a few miles away burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  (Fortunately no one was hurt.)  Does this mean that their neighborhood is more prone to lightning strikes?  Again, Holle says the answer is no.  An analysis of over a billion lightning strikes in the National Lightning Detection Network® database showed no strike patterns specific to neighborhoods. When it comes to the number of cloud-to-lightning strikes, Connecticut is actually in the bottom third of states.  If strikes do more damage in certain areas, Holle says, it probably has more to do with protection of utilities and lack of targets. In sparsely populated areas, the bolt is not dispersed as much. Thus targets here tend to get hit with a more concentrated current.  Next week’s article will uncover some other common lightning-related myths.

See Part 2 of this two-part series on lightning.

Bet Zimmerman is a Certified Environmental Professional and member of the Woodstock Conservation Commission.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on July 20, 2007
Special thanks to John Jensenius and Ron Holle for their help with these articles. John Jensenius has worked for NOAA for 30 years and is currently the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Gray, Maine Office. Holle is a meteorologist and lightning expert with 36 years at NOAA and 7 years at Vaisala Inc.  Vaisala maintains the National Lightning Detection Network®, a database used by many government agencies and insurance companies.

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