[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.]
Be prepared, make sure your family is ready to weather the storm.