How a lightning strike is created
(Editors note: This the second of a series of three articles discussing lightning, how it occurs and safety precautions that one should take in accordance with the phenomenon).
When lightning strikes a person or strikes near them death can be instantaneous.
Or the pain and agony can go on for years
For Deborah Meyer, a Carbon County resident, a strike hurt her badly and killed her dog Archie in August of 2009.
"I just never thought about being struck by lightning," said Meyer in an interview shortly after the strike. "It was a horrible, horrible experience that I would never wish on anyone."
Meyer was temporarily paralyzed after the strike hit her while she was unleashing her dog from a fence at her home. She remembered being engulfed in a massive flash which she said at the time was "no less than being in a bomb explosion."
When she came too, with numb limbs, she crawled through 100 yards of mud to try and find help. She yelled and some neighbors finally heard her about two hours after the strike.
The strike had hit a big cottonwood tree in the yard and had traveled through the rubber-coated wire that the dog was hooked to, shocking she and the animal. She was not directly hit, which can make a difference in the injuries received and the outlook for recovery.
Meyer, like others who have been hit by lightening had lingering after effects. Numbness and pain, burns and other symptoms. Some people have heart problems, others suffer nervous disorders. Even broken bones can be attributed to a strike.
And of course the there is death. On average, at least 10 percent of strike victims die and 70 percent of survivors suffer serious long term effects.
In July of 2011 two people were killed and one badly injured in Carbon County in a matter of three days. And location matters little: one death took place near The Wedge in the San Rafael Swell and the other took place at the Boy Scout camp near Madsen Bay on Scofield Reservoir.
Obviously the local area is not immune from this kind of sudden injury and death. While Carbon County seldom has a tornado or earthquake, and never sees hurricanes, lightning strikes are a common occurrence, particularly in the summer months when the so called monsoon season hits.
How it develops
Lightning develops because of ice in the clouds. In a thunderstorm, ice particles exist which vary in size from small ice crystals to larger hailstones. In the rising and sinking motions within the storm, collisions between the particles occur. This causes a separation of electrical charges. Positively charged ice crystals rise to the top of the thunderstorm, and negatively charged ice particles and hailstones drop to the middle and lower parts of the storm.
A moving thunderstorm gathers another pool of positively charged particles along the ground, that travel with the storm. As the differences in charges continue to increase, positively charged particles rise up taller objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles. The negatively charged area in the storm will send out a charge toward the ground called a stepped leader. It is invisible to the human eye, and moves in steps of less than a second toward the ground. When it gets close to the ground, it is attracted by the positively charged objects, and a channel develops. People see the electrical transfer in this channel as lightning. There may even be several return strokes of electricity within the established channel that one can see. This is flickering lightning.
But not all lightning forms in the negatively charged area low in the thunderstorm. Some lightning originates at the top of the thunderstorm. This area carries a large positive charge. Lightning from this area is called positive lightning and is particularly dangerous, as it frequently strikes miles away from the rain core, either ahead, or behind the thunderstorm.
The lightning channel heats rapidly to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rapid expansion, then contraction of air in the lightning channel causes the thunder. Since light travels faster than sound in the atmosphere, the sound will be heard after the lightning. Seeing lightning and hearing thunder at the same time means it is close by.
Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. Regardless of distance, if one can hear thunder, then a person is in danger of being struck by lightning.
It is a dangerous phenomenon; one that should not be ignored.
Information for this story came from the archives of the Sun Advocate (Meyer story information came from reporter Collin McRann who now is a reporter for the Telluride Daily Planet) and the National Weather Service.