(Editor's note: The Enterprise welcomes Jeremie Fish today. His science column, The Scientific Mind, will appear every other Thursday on this page and on the Enterprise website. We'd appreciate your feedback on this and all our columns; please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or News Editor, Adirondack Daily Enterprise, 54 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983.)
There are a lot of anecdotes out there about lightning and some things that people say are at least partially true, while others are downright wrong and could be harmful.
Lightning flashes during a thunderstorm May 23 near Paul Smiths.
(Photo — Kevin Lenhart)
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
An example of an idea that could be harmful is people often say something like "lightning never strikes in the same place twice." Actually it does and it can even strike in the same place several times during the same storm!
How about this statement; the safest place to be in a storm is in your car. Then the person goes on to tell you that it is the tires that make you safe. Well the statement is half right, the safest place is to be in your car but NOT because of the tires. A car acts as a Faraday cage, as does an airplane, due to the metal frame. Since a conductor (metals are conductors) carries all of its electric charge on its surface, when there is an electric field acting on the outside, the surface charge redistributes itself so as to avoid any electrical charge be deposited on the inside. As long as the windows are shut the electrical discharge will not enter the inside of the car.
Another tall tale, you should stand underneath a tree because you'll be less likely to be struck. Well it may be true that you have less of a chance of being stuck, but many fatalities in thunderstorms can be attributed to the fact that a tree was struck and caught on fire, or fell down. So you really want to avoid trees.
It is also widely believed that it is unsafe to be near a body of water during lightning because the water will pass the charge. I am really getting technical here, but it is actually not the water that is the problem, it is the minerals in the water that conduct the electricity across its surface, pure water (with minerals removed) is actually an insulator and would contain the strike. Still you should avoid water during lightning because unless you buy it specially, all water has these minerals in it.
"You should lie flat on the ground if you are in an open area." This is more bad advice, laying flat on the ground increases your surface area, giving you a greater chance of being struck. Really you should try to seek shelter, but if you are very far away from any kind of shelter you should minimize your contact with the ground as much as possible. Stand on your tip-toes and curl in as much of a ball as possible.
If you think you are safe when you hear thunder but cannot see the lightning, throw that idea out of your head. Lighting has been known to stretch many miles, thus even if the storm is miles away, you can still be struck!
Now that I have warned you about some of the dangers of lightning, I thought I could give a few fun facts. Lightning causes strange things to occur about ground. Of course we are unaware of these phenomena because we can't see them from the ground.
Red sprites, ELVES, and blue jets are all phenomena that happen above the clouds.
These are strange discharges of light that currently have little scientific explanation other than when there is a large discharge toward the ground the atmosphere must have to rearrange itself electronically. They are quite beautiful however.
Something that came as quite a surprise recently about lightning is the fact that it is associated with jets of very energetic radiation known as gamma rays. Apparently during thunderstorms the large electrical currents accelerate the electric charge fast enough to release this energetic radiation into space.
So from now on we can all sit safely in awe of the power of nature, hopefully in our car or house. And perhaps wonder about some of the surprises that nature throws at as, especially once we think we know everything about phenomena such as lightning.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident, SUNY Plattsburgh alumnus and graduate student at Clarkson University.