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In Flash, Anything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lightning

December 16, 1987|MICHAEL KERNAN | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — There are people so scared of lightning that during a thunderstorm they put on sneakers and rubber gloves.

There are people who pull all the curtains and stand in the middle of the room on a bath mat.

There are people who drop everything and go sit in the car until the storm passes.

Today, the chances of your being hit by lightning are about 2 million to 1. (Hardly more than 100 Americans a year are killed by it.) And the figure seems to be going down, for the odds were 1 million to 1 a quarter-century ago. Possibly this is because there is more metal around us now, from apartment buildings to steel-belted radials.

Still, those odds won't bring back the three people killed in Ocean City, Md., in 1986 as they huddled on a beach under an umbrella.

It is a good idea to keep away from wet beaches and especially away from umbrellas when there is lightning around. Also, you should not stand under any lone tall trees or hold onto wires or talk on the phone.

They tell you to keep away from metal. On the other hand, they tell you that a large metal-frame building such as the Empire State Building is a great place to be. And lightning rods, after all, are metal. Mysterious.

Psyching out lightning is not easy. Peter E. Viemeister has written a 316-page book, "The Lightning Book," and even that doesn't tell all there is to know.

He never mentions the late Roy C. Sullivan, the human lightning conductor. Sullivan, for years a ranger in Shenandoah National Park, was struck seven times over 35 years. On different occasions: He lost his big toenail; he lost his eyebrows; he suffered a shoulder burn; his hair caught fire; he injured his ankle; he was hospitalized with chest burns.

On Aug. 7, 1973, when he was driving his car--for anybody else, the safest place to be in a thunderstorm--a bolt knocked his hat off and set his hair on fire again, blew him clear out of the car, whipped through both legs and took off his left shoe.

He had to put out his head with a pail of water. The hat is in a Guinness Book of World Records exhibit hall. Sullivan died in 1983.

Lightning is basically a giant electric spark. It comes in cumulonimbus thunderclouds and is caused when positively charged areas near the top of the cloud run into negatively charged areas at the bottom. Most lightning apparently flashes within the cloud, as molecules between the oppositely charged regions become ionized. But sometimes the charge darts to the ground.

Then it darts back up to the cloud. Then down again, then up again, maybe a dozen or more times in a fraction of a second.

A Mile in 5 Seconds

The bolt usually makes a loud noise. This is thunder, and if you count the seconds between the flash and the boom, you can tell how far away the lightning was. Since sound travels at 1,100 feet per second, it goes about a mile in five seconds.

But there doesn't have to be thunder at all. In April, 1885, five bolts of lightning hit the Washington Monument within 20 minutes--and never made a sound. Scientists speculated that the strokes were of such low voltage that they didn't heat up the air suddenly enough to make it bang.

Some amazing stories:

Edwin Robinson of Falmouth, Me., blind for nine years, got his sight back when he was struck by lightning.

He was walking under a poplar tree, he reported in 1980, trying to catch his pet chicken, when "it was like somebody cracked a whip over my head. I fell right on the ground."

Coming to, he went inside, took a nap in the front room, woke up and started to eat a sandwich his wife had brought him. All at once, he told her, "You know, I can see that plaque on the wall. Not only that, I can-- I can read it! "

Robinson was 62 at the time, and you never heard such a fuss as the media kicked up. He had gone blind when hit on the head in a truck accident.

- Lightning zapped a campsite in Assisi, Italy, in 1976, shaving the heads of two young campers.

- Floridians are a special target of lightning, apparently. From 1960 to this year it killed 253 in Florida, contrasted with 133 in North Carolina, the runner-up, and 120 in Texas. The toll in Maryland was 101 and in Virginia 33. Alaska and Hawaii had no casualties at all.

- Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the electrical genius who worked out the theory of alternating current, set off artificial lightning bolts 50 feet long on a large stage before packed audiences. The noise made babies cry and the smell of ozone afterward was like someone had burned their hair.

- Ball lightning, what Snuffy Smith calls "balls o' fire," can make anybody sound like a liar. Viemeister quotes a Chicago account of 1894: "During last night's thunderstorm a large ball of fire fell in a vacant lot near the business portion of the suburb of Austin. A hole several feet in diameter and of considerable depth was torn in the ground, and the earth for 20 feet around was seared and cracked."

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