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Lightning & Lightning Strike

The majesty of a looming thunderhead (colloquial for a thunderstorm cloud, technically identified as cumulonimbus), highlighted in bright white and tinged with shades of red and orange by a setting sun, belies the truly violent and potentially deadly nature of the beast. Viewed more closely, from beneath its base, the same storm takes on a truly frightening aspect, cutting off sunlight to appear dirty grey or black, with roiling, petulent fragments of cloud at its edges being ripped apart by strong wind shear. Seen at night, this monster puts on a dazzling light show, with high energy bolts of lightning crackling through the air to shake the very earth with reverberation caused by the nearly instantaneous heating of air molecules to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun.

Lightning strike, overlooked as a threat by many, is responsible, on average, for more deaths each year than are tornadoes and hurricanes combined (National Weather Service statistics, 1940-1991). Additionally, lightning injures far more often than it kills. Injuries induced by lightning strike can be painful, debilitating and oftentimes permanent; frequently, significant damage is done to the central nervous system or the brain.

Lightning can strike as far as ten miles beyond the edge of a thunderstorm; people have actually been struck by lightning that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, with no thunderstorm cloud visible. Most people simply do not know the potential danger they are placing themselves in when they venture outdoors during a thunderstorm, or when they pick up the phone indoors or decide to do the dishes while a thunderstorm is in progress. It is imperative that every one of us, for our own safety, give lightning the respect and caution it truly deserves.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.   Original article published 2 March 2004, updated 19 August 2004.

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