Let The Lightning Tuck Me In To My Bed

One thing I remember distinctly from my childhood is being in a friend’s house in our street and looking out the big front window during a storm. Lightning struck the chimney of the house opposite, blowing the earthenware chimney pot to pieces and knocking several bricks off the stack. Exciting.

I like watching electrical storms. At least, I do if I’m warm and dry (and safe) when they’re happening, although since the local climate is a big factor in their frequency, I don’t get the pleasure very often at home. I do remember one time outside Montiriggioni in Tuscany, a walled, hilltop village, where I watched lightning strikes right round the entire horizon, even though it wasn’t even raining where I stood.

On one of my early visits to Tuscany, when my entire extended family had rented a castle, the weather was perfect until the very last day, and then, that morning, the heavens opened and lightning hit the tower, causing the electricity to trip out. It wasn’t a problem though. The kitchen stove was on gas, so we got breakfast before leaving to travel back home. The rain washed a fortnight’s white dust off the hire cars too. Then on my spell in Umbria earlier this year, I spent a couple of hours hanging out my apartment window one evening, trying to get photos of the strikes on the hillsides across the valley.

From the lightning incidence map, it looks as though Italy has by far the highest rate of any country in Europe, but apparently the absolute record is held by the village of Kifuka in Congo, with an average of 158 strikes per square kilometre per year. That means you’d be within spitting distance of one every couple of days. (In comparison, “Lightning Alley” in Florida has about 20 per squre kilometre per year.)

Of course, I always count seconds from the flash to the bang. Actually, when you think about it, sound is surprisingly slow, taking a full three seconds to travel a kilometre, while the light from the flash gets there in about three microseconds. I don’t usually bother to add on the three microseconds when I’m estimating the distance. I reckon on anything less than three seconds as “close” anyway.

With a strong interest in nature’s fireworks, I’m especially fascinated with the menagerie of upper-atmosphere phenomena which have been discovered only in about the last twenty years. High-flying research aircraft and spacecraft have revealed the existence of Sprites, giant red jellyfish which occur around 100km above storms, right on the edge of space. Between the cloud tops and the Sprites, there are Blue Jets, and even above the Sprites there are huge, but very faint flashes called Elves, first seen from a Shuttle mission in 1990. Sadly, I doubt if I’ll ever get to see them first-hand. I’ll have to be satisfied with the show at ground level.


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