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WeatherInsights®: The Weather Channel Blog

June 25, 2008
Taking lightning personally
Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist

[AP Photo / Tulsa World, Stephen Holman, Oklahoma, June 13, 2008]

There's been a lot written on this weather phenomenon lately, including a TWC blog entry by on-camera meteorologist Carl Parker and one by severe weather expert Greg Forbes, and an interesting and well-researched book, Out of the Blue, by John Friedman.

The book and blog entries really resonated with me because of the role lightning has played in my life, so I thought I'd chime in with some personal observations (post a comment and let us know yours!).

As noted in my bio on weather.com and further highlighted in a blog entry I posted a couple of years ago, I am a meteorologist because of a phobia of thunder and lightning which as a very young child infused me with a lifelong obsession with weather. Yes, not only does that obsession persist to this day, if anything it has become even more profound over the years! The more I observe and learn, the more fascinated I become!

One of my earliest memories is being outside my house in my hometown of Somerville, New Jersey, playing in the snow during winter, and all of a sudden there was a flash and a huge crash of thunder. Yes, thundersnow, like during one of Jim Cantore's memorable moments, but unlike an adult Jim, who just exclaimed, "Whoa," little Stu freaked. I stood on the driveway, screaming but otherwise frozen stiff, as my mother ran outside to see what had happened.

Another early memory was walking into our new screened porch, a container of french fries in hand, when suddenly lightning struck the house next door and thunder instantaneously followed. I jumped so high it seemed like I nearly hit my head on the ceiling, and those fries ended up all over the porch.

Next thing I know, there's a bunch of commotion with sirens, ambulances, and fire trucks. I donned my toy firefighter's hat, joined the gathering onlookers, and found out that the lightning had entered the house and melted the phone, moments after she had hung up. That didn't exactly help my fear. (Side note: today's modern cordless and cellular phones are safe to touch during storms, as long as not connected to a plugged-in recharger.)

Fortunately I was able to overcome my lightning phobia for the most part, but that led to overcompensating in the other direction. As I alluded to in that 2006 entry, I had a couple of close calls because of getting a bit too nonchalant, and with this being Lightning Safety Awareness Week I wanted to tell the story of those two experiences to share the lessons that can be learned from them.

The first was in central Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. While at work, Jeff Morrow (now a TWC on-camera meteorologist) and I heard a storm coming and went to an upstairs window to look outside. With our faces pressed against the window (not a good idea), all of a sudden, FLASH!

We lurched backward away from the window, which had electrical wires running by it. I don't know whether our recoil was from the shock in the electrical or surprise sense of the word, but we later reconstructed that the bolt had hit a power pole not more than about 50 feet from the building, and with someone on the lowest floor (of three) having felt a shock from his metal desk, the electrical surge likely passed through those wires entering the building near the window.

Then, in the early 1990s, after having moved to the Atlanta area, I was vacationing in Florida on Amelia Island. I awakened during the wee hours and couldn't sleep, so I went out for a stroll on the beach. I saw a little lightning flickering in the distance. Upon it getting a little closer, but seeming to still be quite far away, I strolled back to the house. Having barely made it inside, KABOOM!

The crash of thunder was about a quarter of a second after the lightning, and with the sound of thunder traveling about 1/5 of a mile per second, well, you do the math. That bolt was very close, and I might have been a target on the beach or dunehopper.

Even though it was nighttime (dark) rather than sunny (blue skies) at the time, that was a classic "bolt from the blue," a particularly dangerous phenomenon because in situations like that the storm is just far enough away to give a false sense of security.

As Dr. Forbes said, we are in the peak time of the year on average for lightning as that late spring and summer heat helps fuel the thunderstorms -- so stay safe!

[AP Photo / Daily News / Greg DeKraker -- BreAnna Helsel shows the window in her home that she was closing when she was struck by lightning on June 6, 2008. Helsel, 16, was at her home in Blanchard ,Mich., watching thunderstorms roll by when she noticed rain entering an open kitchen window. She escaped serious injury. Her good fortune continued the next day, in the form of a winning lottery ticket.]

Posted at 12:05 am ET
Comments on this entry (18)
Stu, You mis-stated the odds. What happened to Troy's son could not have easily happened to you.
Posted by Tom | August 11, 2008
Troy, I'm so sorry for your loss. I searched on the web and found the story on kansas.com. In regard to camping and lightning, I forgot to mention in the blog entry what my experience was a few years ago. We did the Greenway Sojourn, a bicycle tour in northeast Pennsylvania. One evening, a tremendous thunderstorm blew through - the same line of storms which produced the tornado that destroyed the historic Kinzua bridge in northwest PA. There was an event in a sturdy building at precisely that time that evening, so there were no worries. But then more thunderstorms developed to the west at 3am and aimed in our direction. I was *very* uneasy because now there was no shelter, and we were bike camping so our cars were not nearby - and it wasn't at an established campground with facilities, it was just in a big open field surrounded by trees (the facilities were portable showers and toilets). This was before I had the capability of having weather radar on my phone, and so I called into TWC to find out what was going on. I was on the phone with the forecaster on duty, who described what the radar was showing, and I could observe the storm getting closer. Fortunately it veered around us and the lightning stayed a fair distance away. We were lucky, but the memory still brings chills down my spine. What happened to your son could easily have happened to me. Again, my thoughts are with you and your family, and I appreciate you sharing your story.
Posted by Stu Ostro | July 26, 2008
I have always treated lightning with respect. So I thought. My life was changed by a single bolt. If I was in the middle of doing something outside and wanted to get it done, I would finish. Even if a thunderstorm was approaching. Thinking about the past I would say the rain probably played more of a role in my stopping what I was doing. I think this scenario is quite common. Now here is my new scenario...If outside and I hear thunder, I go inside my house, car or some type of dwelling. If I am in the house and I hear thunder, I don't take a shower or use any form of plumbing. If I look outside through a window, it's from a few feet back. I was taking a shower the other morning and heard thunder. I immediately got out of the shower. You guys may think that this is "overkill" but I have given lightning the respect it deserves. You chances of being struck are 1 in 700000. I have scoured the internet to gain some knowledge about lighting. I now consider myself well educated about lightning. You see.... on May 24th, 2008 my son was killed by a lighting strike. He was only 20 years old. My heart as well as his mothers and sister are torn. So please don't think it can't happen to you. Take the proper actions when you hear the lightning. Take care, Troy
Posted by Anonymous | July 26, 2008
Stu, i too used to be afraid of thunderstorms, in fact, i was afraid of thunderstorms until 4th grade. then i started reading about the weather and i got interested in tornadoes, which i thought were very interesting. last night, i had a beaut of a thunderstorm, with a lot of lightning! today, i'm under a severe thunderstorm watch until 9 pm...
Posted by lilapsophile | July 19, 2008
And fire flew from her fingertips As she rosined up her bow Then she pulled the bow across the strings And it made a [sic] evil hiss And a band of demons joined in And it sounded something like this.
Posted by Charley Daniels | July 8, 2008
She lives in a trailer and buys lottery tickets. Talk about profiling.
Posted by Anonymous | July 7, 2008
We don't want rain for the weekend.
Posted by Christopher | July 1, 2008
Shouldn't the tires on the wheels of her house have insulated it somehow?
Posted by Anonymous | July 1, 2008
HA - look at the picture. That is definitely a mobile home. Everyone knows tornadoes and lightning are attracted to mobile home parks!!!!!
Posted by Anonymous | July 1, 2008
Stu - the odds of being killed by lightning are over 2 million to 1. The odds of being murdered are 18,000 to 1. Which are you more phobic about? At least your admitting your childish phobia now explains why you have decided to adopt the alarmist position for CO2 plant food global warming. It makes you feel good when others are as scared as you.
Posted by Anonymous | July 1, 2008
Anonymous June 30: With me, it was simply a matter of taking many years to overcome it. I would think that when, to what extent, or even if someone can do so would depend on the individual involved. You might check out the forums at http://www.stormphobia.org/forum/, browse the web for other info, or, if the problem is severe, consult a psychologist (adult or child) who specializes in phobias.
Posted by Stu Ostro | June 30, 2008
Stu, I think a lot of people become interested in weather because of fear or phobia caused by experiences similar to yours. My children and I experienced a particularly bad series of close lightning strikes at our home 2 years ago and since then my youngest (12 yrs old) and I are really scared during storms. I try really hard to alleviate his fears by acting unconcerned but have not been much help. Any suggestions on how to rid ourselves of this phobia???
Posted by Anonymous | June 30, 2008
I have never personally been bothered by lightning except for some near misses that totally rattled my nerves, but a friend lost her son when the backhoe he was working beside got hit. Another friend watched a bolt come in one window in her house, travel through her television and out the other window as she sat there watching it. Of course, the tv was defunct after that, but she was OK. I have always been the first one to say "let's go in the house" when the weather acted up, since hearing that before I was born, my grandfather on Mom's side, who worked for Iowa Power and Light, was killed by lightning while out working on the lines, which was an amazement to the rest of the family, apparently, because he was always so careful when working on electrical things in the home. Must have been a bolt out of the blue, huh? My grandfather on the other side was a meteorologist, and was the first to use the word "smog" in a weather report. I really wonder what he would think of all the modern weather forecasting, and for that matter, the modern weather. Anyway, I stay inside and away from windows in storms. And off the land line. I wouldn't want to get a "phone call from God", as they say.
Posted by Jane | June 26, 2008
Recently, about a week ago my mother was home while a severe thunderstorm blew through. The thunderstorm was severe and she said one of the strikes was terrifyingly close to our home, creating a sound loud enough to elicit a scream. This lightning strike was successful at irreparably damaging my router and cable modem. The following day my father called me outside to show me something peculiar: One of the trees in our backyard had a large area of bark removed at about 15 ft high on its trunk. The bark was scattered in all directions on my lawn. My father thought the damage to be wind related, perhaps during a strong updraft it forced the tree to bend and twist, causing the large pieces of bark to crack and fall off. I was very skeptical of this hypothesis because the damage was too isolated, meaning: there was no other signs of strong winds in the vicinity: small tree limbs, branches and leaves did not come down from any trees during the storm. The tree was also fairly healthy, therefore the winds would have had to be very strong in order to create such damage. Moreover, the bark was scattered in all directions. Whereas if the wind was that strong, it would have carried the bark in the same general direction. I thought lightning to be the culprit, however my father pointed out that neither the bark on the ground nor the marks on the tree showed any signs of being burned. Stu, could this be the result of a lightning strike and yet still show no signs of being burned?
Posted by Justin | June 25, 2008
I just saw this interesting tidbit on my weather calendar. On June 22, 2005, the warning coordination meterologist for NWSFO Johnston, Iowa, was hurt by a lightning strike at the office that went through the wiring.
Posted by Anonymous | June 25, 2008
Hi Yvonne, there can be just enough of what meteorologists refer to as "instability" and "dynamics" present in the atmosphere to cause thunderstorms even though overall the air is cold.
Posted by Stu Ostro | June 25, 2008
Hi Stu. I'm glad you weren't struck by lightning. We have thunder snow in Lubbock, TX also. And it is freaky. Cuz I thought thunder was caused by a warm air mass colliding with a cold air mass and if it's snowing, where'd the warm air mass come from? The worst thing I don't like about lightning is when you're working on a huge project on the computer and suddenly everything goes black. Grrrrrr.
Posted by Yvonne | June 25, 2008
I used to have a mild fear of lightining, possibly trgered by a strike right outside my house, unfortunately at night. I am now also a total weather nerd. Although sesimology is gradually taking over my brain because of the continuing aftershocks from the April 18 earthquake (I live a few miles southeast of the epicenter). The main reason for my sesimology interest is fear, though. I just find weather fascinating and beautiful. I plan on attending OU and working for the NWS.
Posted by Anonymous | June 25, 2008

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