Safely enjoying Mother Nature’s light show
On Sunday evening, I was driving on the southbound stretch of Centerville Lane and couldn’t help but notice an incredible number of intermittent flashes along the eastern skyline. Lightning repeatedly illuminated the distant clouds at levels that ranged from subtle flickers to extravagant surges. These weren’t bolts of light, but rather like pulses that seemed to be suspended among the clouds. Some bursts appeared isolated while others rolled across the sky in more of a wave.
The light show continued after I arrived home, and I called my family over to watch. Although we didn’t hear any thunder, the patterns of lightning continued at regular intervals ranging between 5-10 seconds, and we enjoyed observing this spectacular display for a good while.
Lightning activity picked up again on Monday afternoon, and East Fork firefighters quickly responded to a number of fires started by strikes across the Pine Nuts.
The National Weather Service (weather.gov) names the two main types of lightning as cloud-to-ground lightning and intra-cloud lightning. Cloud-to-ground lightning “is a discharge between opposite charges in the cloud and on the ground,” and is visible as a bright lightning bolt flash. Intra-cloud lightning, on the other hand, is an electrical discharge between positively and negatively charged areas within a storm cloud.
The National Severe Storms Laboratory (nssl.noaa.gov) describes intra-cloud lightning as “cloud flashes” that occur within the cloud, travel from one part of the cloud to another, and sometimes channel outward into the air; cloud flashes do not reach the ground. NSSL further explains “sheet lightning” as an embedded intra-cloud flash that, “lights up as a sheet of luminosity during the flash,” which perfectly describes what my family and I saw on Sunday. “Heat lightning” is any lightning “or lightning-induced illumination that is too far away for thunder to be heard,” which explains the silence that accompanied that evening’s sky show.
As intriguing as it may be to watch, it’s important to take safety measures during a thunderstorm. If you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike.
The National Weather Service reports there are about 25 million lightning strikes across the U.S. each year, and lightning can reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. NWS estimates an individual’s chance of being struck by lightning during their lifetime as about 1 in 15,300.
The NWS lightning safety motto is, “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.” It’s advised that once inside, stay away from anything plugged into an electrical outlet, plumbing, or corded telephones; cellular and cordless phones are OK. Keep a safe distance from outside doors and windows, and avoid standing, sitting, or laying on concrete.
If heading inside isn’t an option, there are a number of things you can do to help reduce the risk of being struck by lightning: avoid bodies of water and structures that conduct electricity (such as power lines and barbed wire fences), do not shelter beneath a tree or rocky overhang, do not lie flat on the ground, and move away from elevated areas such as mountains or hills.
Additional safety recommendations can be found on the NSW web page. Check out the NSSL website for some fantastic photographs of different lightning phenomena. Be weather wise and be safe out there.