Ten (10) things to do (or not) in a thunderstorm that you must know

First phot of the Eiffel tower struck — wikimedia commons

It was the spring of 1980, before our normal weather was lost. Outside the approaching darkness, the wind blew hard. Early that day having swung north and now building. Everything I knew about the wind said storm a coming. Amplifying the warning was the familiar scent, moist salt. We had the windows open, no one enjoyed air-conditioned rooms. That hole let in the smell. I smelt moisture; a thin layer of salt on the insulation high on power poles makes them crackle, when the thin coating of salt is energies by the high voltage, the lecturer Professor Matt Darveniza, D Eng said (the academic who I dedicated this work to) who was a famous lightning man. I got to know him better later, a guess a lot better because he said one day when alone I was like a son to him. That was years later but the honor of that sentiment rests well with me now that I ponder the landscape for old men and regret us losing touch as the demands of a young family and business overwhelmed me. I just wanted to explain how well I knew him, and why I might know during that lecture what he was feeling. A true warrior feels in his bones the coming storm.

That day the wind was in motion, stirred by Thor. The gods prepared for battle and moved the clouds, the water on the river, the leaves on the trees and even the compact dirt on the path. Wind in build that articulated in the tree branches a coming change. A change building to the south but slowly, the coming anticipated all during the day. Like another change that was then discussed vigorously on campus. The price of oil had rocketed again. In the 1970’s the oil crisis was the first sign the world must change energy use. It is easy to see that now. However, I did not expect that change, with the obvious advantages, the cheery bright young intelligent faces discussed over lunch, after the lecture, would be so slow arriving. Electricity is a cleaner fuel than oil.

Now let’s return to that first lecture that I ever went to about static electricity; I did not expect to be spellbound. The professor explained how motion separated charge; all of you have experienced a zap on a dry day, he said. You reach out to touch a doorknob, or some other conductor, and you see a thin discharge and then feel an uncomfortable tingle in your fingers. Sometimes a quick zap, so intense it hurts. That is nature negating the potential difference that was generated by your earlier motion through space. Or you are more familiar with the movement of fabric against fabric, like when your woolen jumper seems to stick to the shirt beneath, when you try to take it off.

I learned the following from that lecture: Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material or between materials; A charge remains until it can move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge; Static electricity is the electricity trapped on the surface of a nonconductive body; Where liquids flow through a pipe, static electricity is generated; Lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge that occurs during a weather event such as a thunderstorm. This discharge occurs between electrically charged regions of a cloud (called intra-cloud lightning or IC), between two clouds (CC lightning).

Then he said after drawing a picture of a dead man lying under a tree. These are the things you should know about lightning: Never stand under a tree, lightning hits trees; A car is like a Faraday cage and no electromagnetic energy penetrates, get in a car; Don’t use a land line telephone, lightning nearby can induce current sufficient to create a spark that may fry your brain, cases are rare; Don’t stand in an open field, lightning will hit the highest point, you; Don’t fly a kite with a key, unless you are Benjamin Franklin, the luckiest of men; Lightning never hitting the same spot twice is a fairy tale; Lightning is powerful enough to melt sand and turn it to glass, he had samples on the bench; A lightning discharge wants earth, don’t stand in a storm with wet bare feet, that is don’t be the path to earth; Lightning will hit the highest point, like in this old photo (he showed the Eiffel tower hit by a bolt) in the past that was always churches, some think God protects his home; A round gold knob on a lightning rod is not any better than a point; Lightning can induce currents in the ground that travels down cables and destroys electronics.

After the allotted fifty minutes, I packed up my notes and pens and turned to my friend Mark and asked why. Why what, he replied. Why did nature make lightning so dangerous? He was smart. He said why is the sky blue. Rayleigh scattering, I said, longer wavelengths pass through; the red end of the spectrum not refracted. That is how but why is it so. Why does your jumper stick? Electricity must return to equilibrium, he added, a body cannot stay in a highly charged state for long. Take how the wind separates charge; the breeze coming off the sea blowing hard and the moving air high, now lightning strikes and then thunderclaps. That is the same phenomena manifest on an earth scale. But just like your statically charged body and the doorknob.

I was sure I would see another delightful storm show by that afternoon. I liked to watch the sparks fly. The lines of light pulse against billowing dark cloud. That meant lightning for me. That sudden electrostatic discharge had already become fascinating. There were professors in the department that studied how lightning damaged electrical distribution equipment in substations, Prof Darveniza one, who I later studied under, had an international reputation. Was well respected and had even spent time working with his friend, Dr Martin Uman (who authored the best book on lightning which is still available) in Florida. An interesting true gentleman, a quiet achiever that I met years later and collaborated with. They devised strategy to protect Cape Canaveral from lightning. Launching a rocket to the moon in a storm was too dangerous for the astronauts. A lightning strike can cause a major explosion: a large amount of extra voltage injected into the vehicle. In comparable way a transformer that steps up voltage in a substation explodes; Lightning bolts can contain up to 120 million volts — depending on the length and size; A blown transformer knocks out power for hundreds to thousands of people; Blown transformers can also set its surroundings on fire, especially in dry environments.

Of course, it may be dry before the storm. Then you smell moist salt air when it fills one’s nostrils, like that morning, may well be described as an olfactory storm warning. If you bottled that scent; a label written on a bottle with words — Moist Salt Air- written I imagine thinly in sloping running calligraphic script in blue, a perfect name for that alluring natural perfume. Hold a fine glass bottle. Hold it high to fill in the breeze. Then hold it still. Take it away. Then offer it to a girl; please take this baby because I love you, it is to be worn to recall stormy days and me. For I was the wild storm, my girls will tell you, that came and went. Less common were such storms in March and normally only preceding a southerly change but in spring you could set your watch by them. Every day was a storm: some more violent than others.

During the early afternoon, after eating lunch in the college refectory, we walked to laboratory, and we witnessed a violent world. It was early and the green tinge of cloud said big one. The storm prepared to engulf the little peninsula surrounded by river, named St Lucia because it once was a place to grow sugar cane like in the Bahamas. Trees around us in bustling motion. Wind did vigorously rustle leaves and sway branches of the abundant jacaranda trees on campus. In late spring fully loaded blossomed with lavender. The building wind always disturbed more flowers causing more falling and by then dropped all over the ground, scattered under the canopy on the grass. Then when a branch became so violent, swaying and shaking! Falling like rain purple flowers, purple rain, comes down slow, floating. I am lifted and swirling, my soul in anticipation of the drama of the storm. Anticipating the end of sticky heat, the first burst of rain, the cooling and the excitement of the bright strike and the clap following. One may delight in beauty.

Beautiful flowers falling and a delightful show that nature provided for us free. That wind did assert and articulated disturbing power. Now apparent energy in the build. Even on the ground displayed where moving the lavender purple blooms around. Scattering them. Lifting them and turning them amongst the many. The swirling winds direction reversed and became confused on first thunder. A blast from the south lifting the purple and defeating any attempt to cover all the green grass in a matt of color. Not covered completely the grass remained green tropical thick and then rain. The bullets of wind, the rain and lightning amplified the power of nature, as we dashed inside. The power rattling the large window that open kept us cool during the heat now closed just before the first southerly blast. Dark clouds had filled the sky and only then came the full power of the southerly change. Rustling the world.

I waited inside for it to pass with the others and between the bright flashes and loud bangs we talked. It was like being under attack by nature. That was over forty years ago when the weather was still normal. Now the heat from the sun has energized the sky and the bursts of rain when they come down from storms are so much more intense. We just lived through what the media called “a rain bomb” that flooded Southeast Queensland and the east coast as well. And surprisingly all the people who died in the extreme weather event drove into flood water. Where were they going what was worth dying for? I am sure Professor Darveniza would add if you take shelter in your car to be safe from lightning don’t then drive it over a flooded bridge. To be swept away and drown.

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Steven Power

Steven Power

Power Systems Engineer, author and champion of an equitable, humane and sustainable society