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The Town Crier: Thunder and lightning

May 25, 2024May 25, 2024

As I’m working on this column a summer afternoon thundershower is crossing overhead. I’ve got the computer unplugged from the wall and am waiting just in case the electricity goes out.

I call it a thunder “shower” rather than a thunder “storm” because frequently in the summer here the old doom and gloom will pass over menacingly but it only comes a sprinkle. Of course, 400 feet down the road it may come a gully-washer, or, as they say in North Carolina, a frog-strangler.

But the afternoon storms are part of what makes it summer around here. I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the summer during summer, but I do know at Disney World during the summer season they keep rolling carts of raincoats decorated with Mickey Mouse and other characters at the ready. Then when a big, black cloud comes overhead and the rain pours down they roll the carts out and start selling the raincoats to the tourists like hot cakes. When I’ve been there during this, we usually just go inside and ride something or grab an ice cream. Being from the South, we know what’s going on. In about 10 minutes the rain slacks off and then disappears, the carts go away until tomorrow afternoon and the tourists from other parts of the country fold up the raincoat and try and decide where to stow it. For Disney World, a typical 10-minute shower equals thousands of dollars in sales.

Lightning is definitely something to be concerned about. Although most lightning occurs within clouds, there are plenty of times it strikes the ground or it may start at the ground and shoot up. The lightning is caused when there is a big electrical imbalance between negatively-charged and positively-charged areas. Those areas may be between clouds or between a storm and your cow. and if you’re on a golf course, don’t stand out in the open. and don’t stand under a tree. Just go home (or at least to the clubhouse).

This reminds me of a funny personal story (not so funny at the time). My dad was a fisherman and we were in a metal boat fishing in a lake when a storm came up suddenly. The lake just happened to be next to a golf course with golfers enjoying their Saturday game. The storm blew up and before you knew it there was a giant lightning strike just over us. Here we were sitting in a metal boat in a lake full of water and my dad points over to the golfers and says, “Look at those golfers with no sense. I can’t believe they’re out playing golf in this weather.” and once he had pointed out their folly, he cast his line again after “the big one.”

When lightning hits nearby and the thunder crashes simultaneously everybody jumps! You know you’re too close for comfort. The fear of lightning is called astraphobia. I call it good sense.

Lightning can be seen 100 miles away, but the sound of thunder only travels about 20 miles. and if you see lightning and about five seconds later you hear the thunder, the lightning is about one mile away. Sound travels much slower than light so these calculations are pretty easy using the “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” method.

Light travels almost a billion feet a second, while the sound of thunder travels at about 1,125 feet per second. Three seconds from flash to boom means the lightning is about six-tenths of a mile away. A couple of things to remember are 1) there are about a billion and a half lightning flashes a year on Earth, but most never strike the ground, 2) 90% of people struck by lightning survive, and 3) I’m never going out in a metal boat fishing during a thunderstorm ever again.

Averaging between 2012 and 2021 about 23 people per year died from lightning strikes. and yes, lightning does strike the same place twice; the Empire State Building in New York gets hit about 23 times a year. Look out Kong!

My grandmother may not have had astraphobia, but she certainly respected lightning and knew about lightning rods. When staying with her on summer days, when a big storm came up she had a two-prong reaction. First, she dashed out to get the clothes off the clothes line in record time. She would swoop up the sheets and towels and cloths, throwing them in a basket as she tossed the clothes pins into a little apron she had with pockets on it where she kept the pins.

The second part was to rush me in with her into a bedroom on the far side of the house from where the storm was coming. I thought somehow the bedroom was lightning proof until I took science classes in school. I think she went there so there would be a bed to crawl under if it ever got too bad.

She would have known of many buildings back in the day, barns and houses, that burned down from direct lightning strikes. The heat inside a lightning bolt is crazy hot, as hot as 50,000 degrees, which is five times hotter than the sun! The reason a tree splits when lightning hits it is the sap (including the water) turns instantly to steam and blows the thing apart. and of course there are all those barns that burn down and forest fires that get started by lightning.

In the Ray Bradbury book “Something Wicked This Way Comes” one of the characters is Tom Fury, a traveling lightning rod salesman. He shows up at the beginning of the book and lets everyone know that “a storm is coming.” He means it literally and figuratively.

I don’t know about your house, but at my house there is a grounding wire that runs down one of the gutters and goes into the ground. My house was built by a retired gentleman in 1988 and he was up in the country in Tennessee, so he knew about the dangers of lightning from way back. He also kept chickens and didn’t like hawks flying around.

And yes, we do have an above average number of lightning strikes and thunderstorms as compared to the rest of the country. The weather in the Southeast makes it one of the world’s hot spots for lightning, including Lightning Alley across Central Florida. and incidentally (and I don’t know how they measure these things), the longest lightning bolt on record was 477.2 miles and occurred here in the South on April 29, 2020. That’s further than the distance from Dalton to Daytona Beach. Think about that the next time you drive down there.

Sometimes at night, when there’s a distant thunderstorm, you can see the lightning bolts light up the cloud from inside, sometimes making it glow, and sometimes shooting out of the cloud in dramatic and zig-zagging bolts that look like something the Greek god Zeus would throw down to Earth like a spear. They can put on a mesmerizing show.

And in the daytime in summer you can sometimes see the towering thunderheads in the distance. You know it’s raining underneath, but they are so far away they’re over Tennessee to the north, or Alabama to the west. They tower sometimes more than 50,000 feet. That’s higher than commercial airliners fly. Another win for Mother Nature!

Of course, many times when you see a storm like that you put it in high gear so you can get home before it arrives over you. and pity the traveler that spies the cloud miles down the highway, knowing that at some point in the near future you’re going to be driving right into it.

Leave it to a thunderstorm to hit right when you don’t want it. I can’t tell you how many Fourth of Julys have started out sunny and spectacular. The guests are arriving, the hot dogs are sizzling and the lemonade is ready ... but as soon as it gets late afternoon and we’re ready to slice the watermelon, here come the clouds and the next thing you know we’re rushing into the house with soggy paper plates in our hands. Sure, it stops in a while, but then it’s as humid as a Turkish bath. and finally, when it’s dark enough for the fireworks, everyone is muggy and the matches won’t hardly strike on the box. There should be a law where it can only rain on July 3 or 5, but not on the Fourth.

On the other hand, there are times when it’s unbearably hot out and the afternoon thundershower will cool things down. That’s a small price to pay for staying inside until the lightning has gone past.

Let’s face it, thunderclouds and thunderstorms can be fickle, putting on a long-distance night-time show that’s all “oohs and ahhs,” or an overhead terrorizing event that causes you to jump in fear and then ends with the ultimate tragedy of modern life ... having the electricity go out and losing the TV signal!

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

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