Dirk OdenDirk Oden



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An En-Lightning Experience

    A number of years ago my family had a hair-raising experience--literally. We were climbing Uncompahgre Peak, and our excitement over the nearness of the summit was stronger than our concern for the increasing clouds. My older sister and I were the first to reach the top of the peak. While enjoying the view I noticed a dark cloud directly over us. I looked at my sister and her hair suddenly stood out in all directions!
    I had remembered reading that when you are about to get struck by lightning your hair stands up. I hollered at my sister and warned the rest of my family who had just reached the top. We began a rapid descent trying to quickly reach a sheltered area far below while still maintaining control on the loose talus slope. I didn't know if the tingling in my arms was from adrenaline or electricity in the air. White flashed at the same time that the air exploded. I turned quickly, relieved to see that none of us had been hit. Yet within a few minutes my sister's hair was on end again. Another flash-crash and we were setting records for the hundred boulder dash. It had taken us four hours to reach the summit; within half an hour we were sitting in our vehicle at the trailhead.
    Until that day, I had never really given much thought about lightning. We all should, though. Tornadoes, flash floods, and hurricanes rightfully get a healthy respect, but lightning kills more people in an average year than the three of those combined!

What is Lightning?
    Lightning is basically a giant spark of static electricity. The main differences between the spark you see when you rub your feet on the carpet and touch an unsuspecting victim on the ear and a tree-shattering bolt are the amount of electricity involved and the distance it travels. The air in clouds is in constant motion. Warm air from the earth's surface rises within clouds. Cold air at the top of the clouds sinks. This creates turbulent air currents that send water droplets and ice crystals tumbling through the clouds like clothes in a dryer. Nature's version of "static cling" results in an electrically charged cloud.
    Perhaps true about people, but definitely true about electricity is the old adage, opposites attract. Beneath the charged cloud is a group of opposite electrical charges, clinging to the surface of the ground, but following the cloud like an invisible electric shadow. The strength of attraction depends on two things:  the number of charges (which continues to build) and the distance the cloud is from its "shadow." When the force of attraction reaches a critical level, the charges rush to meet each other at speeds so fast the heat created is seen as a brilliant flash. The super-heated air molecules around the bolt move faster than the speed of sound creating the shock wave we hear as thunder.

Lightning Myths.
    Lightning has fascinated people for thousands of years, and ancient histories often contain imaginative explanations for its causes. Even today, some modern myths about lightning are commonly believed:

Lightning never strikes the same place twice. The Empire State Building gets struck by lightning many times a year. The high peaks surrounding the valley are, of course, frequent targets. Whatever features make a particular location attractive to lightning generally do not change after a lightning strike.

Lightning won't strike cars because of the rubber tires. Lightning travels great distances through the air (often over a mile), so why would a few inches of rubber block its path? Lightning takes the easiest path at the time of the strike. When lightning strikes a car it usually flashes over the metal exterior of the car leaving passengers inside unharmed. However, because the electricity flashes over outside of the vehicle, anyone riding in the open bed of a pickup can be killed by lightning!

You can get shocked by touching a lightning-struck victim. A person struck by lightning needs immediate attention. A common effect of lightning is to stop the heart. Strike victims can often be revived if CPR is started right away. The electricity from the strike passed through the victim instantly. There is no danger of shock to anyone trying to give first aid. Victims of electrical shock from power lines are a completely different matter, however. Before touching any unconscious victim, survey the scene carefully! Never touch an electrical burn victim unless you are absolutely sure he or she is no longer connected to the source of electricity.

Benefits of Lightning.

    Not only is lightning an awesome sight, but it benefits our environment as well. All plants need nitrogen. Seventy percent of the earth's atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, but it is in a form plants cannot use. When lightning strikes, the heat of the bolt changes nitrogen gas to a form that plants can use. Another benefit of lightning is causing small, localized forest fires. These fires help clean the forest floor, recycle materials, and open the forest for new growth. Such fires increase the diversity of plant and animal life in the area.

Lightning Safety
    The bottom line is this: don't be in a place where lightning might strike when lightning is likely. Remember that lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area. Don't become that object or a part of it. Particularly dangerous places include open meadows, open water, open parking areas, isolated trees, tall trees, rock outcroppings, and (especially) Uncompahgre Peak.

    Lightning can definitely pose a hazard to the outdoor enthusiast. But I am grateful for the opportunity to appreciate its power, beauty, and influence on the world around us. With a little knowledge and common sense, we do not need to fear lightning. We just need to keep a watchful eye on the sky

2006  Dirk Oden





This site was last updated 09/13/06