For some reason (I'm a little OCD?) I am obsessed with finding out exactly what lightning strikes hit. I recently investigated two lightning strikes here in Central PA. Today I bring you the results of the first one.
#1: Strike Documented On Film - Chickoree Mountain, Pennsylvania - May 28th, 2009
Local storm chaser Ron "R-Factor" Shawley was too close for safety when he got this strike on video (ignore the beginning where the tape is fast-forwarded temporarily):
A new storm popped up right overhead and let this strike loose while Ron was waiting for known storms to move in. This is a big danger in storm chasing (more about lightning safety below).
Just out of curiosity to test their accuracy, I obtained a lightning report from Vaisala, one of two companies that monitors lightning strikes in the United States (if you ever need a report like this for insurance purposes, our Forensics Team can get one for you). Here's the map they generated (Ron was at the "star").
From this it's already clear that they pretty much nailed it - the strike is very close to the road, as it appeared to be on the film, and their "Confidence Ellipse" covers the area eastward to where Ron was. Given that they are operating from radio sensors that are dozens, sometimes hundreds of miles away, this is impressive.
But let's look a little closer in Google Earth. The first thing I find is that the lat/lon for Ron's location that I gave Vaisala was slightly off, that is shown as the red pinpoint to the right; Ron's actual location is shown at the video camera. (Google recently *finally* gave high-res satellite imagery to Pennsylvania - I was probably using the low-res stuff before when I estimated the lat/lon. If I really wanted to be exact I could take a GPS down there but since I can literally see the road where Ron was standing I don't think that's necessary).
The next thing I did was I resized a clip from the video with Photoshop and overlaid it on a panorama that I took of the area last year when I visited. I tried to match the "triangular clearing" across the road from the strike, and the road itself (the trees in the foreground wouldn't match, possibly because Ron was standing slightly to the left or right of where I was, which means that the strike could be displaced slightly to the left or right).
Ron did his own investigation, which you can see in the video below. The only thing he didn't do, that I recommend he do, is walk under the canopy of trees between the pole/dirt pile and where he took the photo.
Based on the photo, and lack of damage that Ron found, my money is on the power pole. It was the highest thing in the area, no tree damage was found, and those poles are grounded to take lightning into the ground with little evidence. I have placed the approximate location of the pole as a "?" on the Google Earth image below.
Vaisala To Best Guess: 1,150 Feet (350 Meters) Vaisala To Ron: 3,220 Feet (0.6 Miles) Best Guess To Ron: 2,000 Feet (0.4 Miles) Far Edge of Trees To Ron 1,000 Feet (0.2 Miles)
According to people from Penelec that Ron talked to, the top wire on the pole is a "grounding wire" made to dissipate the lightning charge with little damage, though one guy said he thought there would still be some damage to the pole. Vaisala said the strike was only negative 11,100 Amps (-11.1 kA) - on the low end of 62 strikes near that time within a 5-mile radius, which ranged from 6,300 to 57,000.
Here's two things that make me think it might have *not* been the pole. For one, I would have expected to see something happen *at* the pole (like in this YouTube video taken from approximately the same distance, but at night, and perhaps with a more complex pole that had a power transformer).
Second, the audio evidence seems to disagree with the Google Earth measurements shown above (I zoomed into the original clip with Camtasia Studio Pro). If 5 seconds = 1 mile (5284 feet) then 1 second = about 1,057 feet. According to Camtasia Studio, the time between the lightning and the thunder was 1.5 seconds (technically 1 second and 16 out of 30 frames), indicating about 1,585 feet (WikiAnswers says that sound travels at 1,125.79 ft/s). The pole is about 2,000 feet away.
SO WHERE DID IT HIT?
We may never know. I guess I'd go with the pole unless he can find tree damage in-between it and his location.
WHY DID IT NOT CAUSE DAMAGE?
It's not always possible to find out where lightning struck, even with this sort of pinpoint location. If it hits something (like a power line) that is meant to take it with little damage, you may never know it hit. On the other hand, lightning does frequent damage to things that *aren't* meant to take its power, such as trees and homes (Google News reports 3,200 articles about home fires caused by lightning in 2009 alone). In 1987, lightning struck my house causing massive damage.
WHAT CAN STORM CHASERS DO TO AVOID BEING STRUCK BY LIGHTNING?
Although there may be a correlation with a decrease in lightning just before some Tornado Alley storms spawn severe weather, here in the East lightning is very unpredictable. Because of "Bolts from the Blue" (which I talked about last summer) that can travel 30 miles outside of a storm, and because storms can pop up suddenly overhead as this one did, I recommend always leave the camera outside the car and put yourself inside. Being in a car is a much safer place to be (because the lightning will travel around you). You can secure your tripod to your car or a guardrail to avoid it tipping over in high winds (Ron has used this trick before). Being struck by lightning is no joke - IF you survive you will have life-long health issues.
Join me tomorrow for a journey of my own to attempt to find the location of a lightning strike in my own neighborhood earlier this week.
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