A few words about lightning myths
Becoming warm & humid, chance of p.m. t'storms: Full Forecast *
Now that spring is here, we're into the time of year when weather systems become more prone to thunderstorm development and occasional severe weather outbreaks. With thunderstorms, of course, come lightning and with lightning, myths abound. Just a few:
- Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Probably the most famous and well known of all lightning myths. If anything, the opposite is true because lightning tends to favor certain objects by striking them over and over. New York's Empire State Building is struck, on average, 20 times a year.
Keep reading for more lightning myths...
- Heat lightning is "false" lightning caused by the combination of high heat and humidity. What people refer to as "heat lightning" is just distant nighttime lightning associated with a far off, sometimes isolated storm that may avoid the observer. Also, the storm is often too far away for the thunder to be heard, since it's only audible up to a few miles away.
- Rubber-soled shoes will protect one from being hit by lightning. The most powerful of lightning discharges can carry up to 1 billion volts, 250,000 amps, and be up to 50,000 degrees F hotter than the surface of the sun. It's unlikely that a pair of rubber-soled shoes would offer much protection against such awesome power.
- Rubber tires will protect a car's occupants. It's not the tires but the steel "cage" that (usually) channels the discharge through the tires and into the ground, shielding the occupants at the same time. Note: You risk electrocution if you get out of a car when "live" wires are touching it, because you'd be grounding the circuit.
- The lightning rod, invented by Ben Franklin, attracts (or repels) lightning. According to the National Weather Service, lightning rods actually increase the chances of lightning hitting a structure by making it taller. But if connected to the ground through a copper cable or heavy gauge wire, a lightning rod will channel a lightning bolt harmlessly to the ground rather than to the structure.
- Lightning isn't a hazard as long as it's not raining. Believe it or not, some people still believe this "old wives' tale" and others believe just the opposite, which is just as fallacious. Actually, the most dangerous parts of a storm are often the leading and trailing edges, where lightning has been known to strike up to 10 miles or more ahead of or to the rear of a storm. It's where the saying "a bolt out of the blue" originates. Forty-two years ago in Virginia Beach, Rebecca Godwin, age 14, daughter of (then) Virginia Governor Mills Godwin, was killed by lightning. She had just stepped out of the water onto the sand when she was struck "on a clear, sunny day with no storms around," it was said. We don't have any proof to the contrary, of course, but I suspect that an offshore storm, somewhat shielded by haze, may have been just close enough to cause this tragedy.
- Lightning always hits the highest object. Although often true, this saying is wrong enough of the time that we can't count on it. Cloud-to-ground lightning, or any other kind of lightning (cloud-to-cloud, intra-cloud, cloud-to-air, etc.) takes the path of least resistance, so while it's best not to BE the tallest object around (such as being on the beach or in the water) it's also a good idea not to be NEAR the tallest object around (like a lone tree).
Some lightning facts:
- Over recent decades, the average number of annual thunderstorm days in our area has been 35-40.
- It's been estimated that as many as 2,400 thunderstorms are rumbling around the world at any one moment.
- The "Lightning Crouch" is considered an option of last resort when it's impossible to move indoors. The position is meant to minimize both height and contact with the ground by crouching down on one's toes, while at the same time holding the hands over the ears (to protect the eardrums).
And finally, some lightning benefits: Lightning...
- Ionizes the air, releasing nitrogen into rainwater for plant root growth. Although the atmosphere is approximately 78% nitrogen, atmospheric nitrogen normally can't be absorbed through plant leaves.
- Helps balance Earth's heat budget and maintain its electrical balance.
- Helps clear the forests of dead wood, making room for new seedlings.
What about you? Do you have any favorite lightning myths or some benefits that you'd like to share?
| May 12, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Education, Lipman, Thunderstorms
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