Ben Franklin was lucky that the spark he saw on the key attached to his kite string was because he was in a strong electric field. If that kite or key had been struck, Ben would have been killed.
Although we all experience lightning on a regular basis, most people don’t know much about it. I wouldn’t try to explain the science of lightning. It’s not only complicated, but even scientists are not totally clear on why and how it occurs. But there are some ideas about lightning that I might be able to dispel – and there are even some ideas that my mom had about lightning that turn out to be true. During this hot summer season, it might be useful to know a bit more about what is happening up there in the sky.
Despite what your parents might have told you as a kid, the tallest objects in a storm don’t always get struck by lightning. Yes, taller objects are closer to the clouds, but it’s almost as likely that the lightning will strike the ground near a tall object. Taller objects may have a higher possibility of a strike, but a lightning strike path is not predictable.
And, despite what the packaging told you, that surge protector you bought to save your electronics from a lightning strike on your power line won’t work. Surge protectors can protect appliances fro power surges in the line from the power company, but not for lightning. What you need to buy is a lightning arrestor that uses a gas-filled gap that can conduct the current safely to ground.
Ben Franklin also came up with the “Franklin Rod” Franklin speculated about lightning rods before his kite experiment which he did because he was tired of waiting for Christ Church in Philadelphia to be completed so he could place a lightning rod on top of it to see if it worked. The unpredictability of lightning means that rods merely improve your chances if a strike occurs on your building, but are no guarantee of protection.
More than 1,000 people get struck by lightning every year in the United States, and incredibly it is not always fatal, but more than 100 of them die as a result of the strike.
Your parents probably told you that if you were caught outside in a storm, to find shelter. Lightning can use you as a path to the earth just as easily as it can use any other object. Your best shelter is a building or a car .
A car is not safe because of rubber tires, since the tires actually become more conductive than insulating. You’re safe in a car because, as Michael Faraday discovered )and named a “Faraday cage”), the lightning will travel around the surface of the vehicle and then go to ground. This shielding effect is still used to protect the sensitive integrated circuits in electronic devices.
Not taking shelter under trees is good advice because trees attract lightning due to their height, roots and water.
No shelter? Put your feet as close together as possible and crouch down with your head as low as possible without touching the ground. Never lay down on the ground. The lightning tale that scared me the most as a youngster was of a high school baseball player who was killed after lightning hit the ball field. After lightning strikes the ground, there is an electric potential that radiates outward and if your body is in this area, current can flow through you.
From what I have read, my mom’s rule that you stay off the phone during lightning storms is also good advice. If lightning does hit a phone line, the strike will travel to every phone on the line and you if you are holding the phone. That was in the days of only land lines - a cordless phone or cell phone is okay.
My mom was also right about staying away from plumbing pipes (no stormy baths or showers in our household). Lightning can strike a house or near a house and send an electrical charge through plumbing. It’s not the threat it once was because non-metal PVC pipe is used for so much plumbing these days.
There are different types of strikes and types of lightning. The most familiar is categorized as cloud to ground lightning. Did you know that what we observe might also be ground to cloud lightning? In this case, a tall, earth-bound object initiates the strike to the cloud.
Cloud to cloud lightning is a lot safer to observe as the strike travels from one cloud to another.
Lightning that is reflected in the clouds is known as sheet lightning.
If the lightning is near the horizon is reflected by high clouds, it is called heat lightning.
My parents piqued my interest as a child with a tale of ball lightning that they claimed rolled through our home. I can’t confirm their story, but this phenomenon is real. This lightning forms a slow, moving ball that can burn objects in its path before exploding or burning out.
Personally, I have never seen a red sprite, but it sounds pretty cool. It is a red burst reported to occur above storm clouds and reaching upwards a few miles in length (toward the stratosphere).
Also in the cool zone is the “blue jet.” That is a blue, cone-shaped burst that occurs above the center of a storm cloud and also moves upward at a high rate of speed.