Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Few of the 90,000 Bolts

The evening of Monday, August 4, started off pleasantly enough, with some gathering clouds, but not enough to discourage me from going out on a few errands. By the time I got to the post office, it was raining some. It was raining more when I returned some library books. By the time I got to my bank -- inside a grocery store -- it was darker than it should have been and raining a lot.

The air conditioner in my old car hasn't worked in some years, and correcting the problem would probably cost more than the car is worth. Most of the time, even in summer, it doesn't bother me. Early in my round of errands, I had my windows up to keep the rain out, but soon that caused a fogging problem. I cracked the windows, which helped some, but it was still difficult to see as I headed home, first on a main street with many streetlights, then on an side street with a lot fewer lights.

I was getting wet. The fog was returning to the windshield. Then, suddenly, lightning that had seemed distant became close lightning: rumble, boom, boom boom rumble, boom BOOM!

It was like a garden hose had cut loose on my already-blurry windshield, while at the same time some photo-happy imp set off flashbulbs in my back seat. I pulled over to the curb and turned on my blinkers. I rolled my window all the way down; in came water and wind. Lightning hit so close a few times that there was virtually no lag between light and sound. So I rolled the windows back up, since I remembered reading long ago that a car is a relatively safe place during a lightning storm, if the windows are up. The National Lightning Safety Institute (there's an institute for everything) offers similar advice, though I looked that up after the event.

The really close strikes probably lasted only a minute -- a long minute, for sure -- and with some attention to wiping off the inside of the windshield, I was on my way soon after it passed. The storm was still pretty vigorous when I got home, so I cooled my heels in the car for a while in the driveway. From that vantage, I could see a lot of cloud-to-cloud lightning. It was all part of the storm's lightning bombardment, as described in the Tribune the next day:

"Over four hours, about a half-year's worth of lightning bolts bombarded the Chicago area, electrifying the night sky as trees were split, transformers were zapped and houses were set ablaze... Nearly 90,000 thunderbolts had hit northern Illinois, according to the National Lightning Detection Network. At the storms' peak, it was firing off more than 800 bolts per minute; and that only counts those that hit the ground...

"The electrical storms raked the city and suburbs, bringing the Cubs game to a halt, sending residents into their basements and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers. Remarkably, no injuries from the lightning were reported.

"The awesome display originated in the unstable humidity that built up Monday afternoon, filling the area with potential energy, meteorologists said. When unusually high clouds rolled into the region, an electrical tension began to build between positively charged ice crystals at their top and negatively charged water droplets at their bottom, creating a volatile mix."

Or as the ancients might have said, Zeus was feeling especially wrathful -- except that he didn't actually hit anyone. Maybe it was just to show that he could, if he wanted to. He just didn't want to.

An account of lightning appeared here only a few days after my latest experience.


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