A severe thunderstorm moved over Pennsylvania Storm Chaser Ron Shawley's location last night near Vinco, Pa. An extremely close lightning strike injured him, shown here in regular speed then slow motion (WARNING: some language):
Does this video show Ron's truck getting struck? I don't believe so. I'm not saying he wasn't hit directly by lightning, but you can't see evidence of that on this video. This is something I've blogged about before, and it can fool expert meteorologists. The camera's lens creates reflections of the lightning strike (some even off-camera) called "ghost images." If there were an actual lightning strike within feet of the camera, it would appear much larger due to overexposure (like this). Here's what I think we're seeing:
Subsequent still frames show the same lightning strike repeated at various places on the image:
Couldn't the small lightning strikes be "positive streamers" or "stepped leaders?" While positive streamers (a visible lightning bolt coming from objects on the ground) could have been present in the area, they are not shown in this video. Stepped leaders, which are so rare that they have only been captured a few times in history, one of which I documented in my blog, and two classic examples are in this Discovery Channel video at 1:49. [UPDATE: Additional links sent in by readers, thanks: http://www.stormtrack.org/forum/showthread.php?24621-Positive-Streamer-PhotoPositive Streamer]). They are clear in photos and videos, not smeared like the ghosts you see here. Also, the Ion camera video (which is a just-released video camera) does not show these small strikes (it shows a "split-frame" where the video shows the top of one frame and bottom of another, but what you see there is simply a reflection of the main strike on Ron's hood and the road).
So what caused Ron's injuries? It's still possible that Ron's truck was hit by a fork of this lightning strike that we can't see, but if that was the case, we'd likely see light from behind the camera in the video. While injury caused by a direct lightning strike is well documented, there's little research on how far damaging electricity expands out from the point where the lightning hits (especially in cases like this where nearby power lines are involved). Herds of animals are often killed by one lightning strike, indicating that there is damaging electricity within a certain radius from the strike.
After speaking with Ron on the phone this morning and measuring distance in Google Maps, I believe he was between 100 and 200 feet from the strike (see map below), much closer than his previously documented strike. This is probably close enough to receive minor injuries. Trust me when I say that close proximity to a lightning strike can cause temporary blindness, hearing loss and generally just freak you the heck out (I've been within about 30 feet of three lightning strikes in my lifetime; none were caught on film).
Another possibility is that static electricity from stepped leaders or St. Elmo's Fire in the cab of Ron's truck could have (theoretically) caused injury when it became a potential strike location for the lightning. In any case, lightning is the most dangerous threat in East Coast storm chasing (even more so than in Tornado Alley). Ron was lucky to have been inside his car at the time of the strike, and it speaks to the added safety from cameras on the car's dash or cameras (like the waterproof Ion Review] or GoPro [Review] secured to the outside of the car.
When storm chasing, it's always best to be inside the car when filming. Generally cars protect you from lightning, not because they have rubber tires, but because they are a Faraday Cage. In theory, a direct lightning hit to a car can still injure you if you're touching metal connected to the "cage" frame, or via sparks flying around due to damaged plastic or electronics (shown below).
Among hundreds that claim to show it on YouTube, there are only three videos that I've seen on YouTube that legitimately show a lightning strike on a car from a few feet away: "Lightning Hits MiniVan," "Lightning Strikes Car," and Lightning Strikes SUV While Driving (Slow Motion)."
The weather setup was marginal for a Tornado Alley-like supercell thunderstorm like the one Ron encountered. The SPC had issued a "Slight Risk" to the northwest of his area, and scattered thunderstorms were predicted by most outlets. Above is what the radar looked like radar loopsas it approached him (Ron was located near the "X"). A hook echo had just formed miles from his location!
This is the velocity shot, showing significant rotation to his immediate SW, in the hook:
I was driving in my car at the time, but when I saw these radar images, I became concerned about Ron's safety (I knew he was at his storm chase vista Mile Hill, a couple miles above his house). I called him on the phone to warn him about a possible tornado near his location, but he told me the big story was that he had just been hit by lightning! He had also reported high wind and hail between golf ball and marble size. A Severe Thunderstorm Warning was in effect, but no Tornado Warning had been issued. That changed with the next radar refresh. I tried to call him back but he wouldn't pick up. When he finally did, I said "Call your wife, it looks like the tornado went right over your house."
Over 16,000 lightning strikes hit the ground in Pennsylvania yesterday, which is an active day but not unprecedented, but the storms that moved near Ron's location contained very dense lightning.
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