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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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