Lightning Myths and Facts

As anyone who witnessed the unlikely incidence of George W. Bush being the guest of honor at two Presidential inaugurations can attest, killer bolts from the sky do in fact strike twice. When you think about it, that whole idea of lightning never hitting the same spot twice was pretty ridiculous. There is absolutely no scientific reason in the world for two lightning bolts to not hit the same area. In fact, depending on where that spot is, lightning may return it several times like a jilted lover who can’t quite admit the relationship is over. The “can’t strike twice in the same place myth” isn’t the only one concerning lightning. For instance, the reason why it is safer to be inside a car during a lightning storm has nothing to do with the rubber tires and everything to do with the steel frame. And on that subject, a car doesn’t offer total protection; people have been struck by lightning inside cars.

Despite the mythic qualities that bolts from the sky may carry, lightning is nothing more than a scientific process. The bolts of frenetic energy are created as a result of air movement that separates the negative and positive air particles. Lightning is essentially just the discharge of electrical energy that exists between those positively and negatively charged areas. How dangerous is lightning? One single bolt could keep a 100 watt light bulb going nonstop for three months. A bolt of lightning is actually hotter than the surface of the sun.

Lightning arrives in two common types: cloud to cloud and cloud to ground, but within these two major types are various subtypes: spider, bead, ribbon and rocket lightning. Spider lightning is characterized by a long discharge that makes it seem to a spectator as if it is crawling from cloud to cloud like the arachnid for which it is named. Bead lightning is perhaps the most fascinating of all lightning; a discharge of energy that actually breaks apart to form balls of light. Ribbon lightning is the lightning that takes place when the energy explodes in a horizontal movement, often helped along by wind. Rocket lightning is the least common of all, characterized by a vertical discharge both away from and toward the cloud.

Lightning can be incredibly beautiful, but it is important to respect the danger it poses to you. Lightning can kill even when you don’t see it. In fact, by the time you do see lightning, the danger has magnified significantly. Most people who are injured by a lightning strike are not directly hit by the bolt, but are rather in close proximity to where it hit. Close being a relative term. The danger of lightning is greatest when you only hear the thunder and don’t see the bolt because your guard is let down. Have you heard the story of several high school football players being injured by a single bolt that hit the field; even those not near where the bolt actually struck? Or what about the Boy Scout troop on the camping trip where several kids had to be rushed to the hospital despite not a single scout actually getting hit directly? When lightning hits the ground it travel a pretty fair distance and can put a hurting on you. You are smart enough not to stand under a tree or pick up an pole during a lightning storm, of course, but if you really want to show you are smarter than a fifth grader, you will immediately seek cover at the first sound of thunder.

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