Shortly after the first crack of thunder in Thursday’s summer storm, the lights in my home flickered off then back on again, so quickly that the clock on my stove didn’t have time to reset itself and still gave an accurate time of 7:17. I counted myself lucky and hoped that would be the worst of the storm for me.
I still count myself lucky — very lucky — but the short outage was not the worst of it.
Less than 20 minutes later I was looking at photos and a video of the storm uploaded to our Facebook page as a bolt of lightning shot overhead and the room suddenly exploded with arcs of blue light. Sparks of static electricity shot out of my hands and my hair literally stood on end.
After letting out a few curses in shock, I assessed myself and seemed to be unharmed except for a crick in my neck from jolting back from the sparks. My heart was racing, arms shaking and I could feel the static coming off my hair as I ran my hand over my head.
A few minutes more (closer to a half hour, in truth), I was starting to feel normal again and the realization settled that a passing bolt of lightning might have just electrocuted me.
I had seen countless lightning storms before (one particularly awesome front comes to mind, driving through a long, flat stretch of Georgia), even seen lightning strike down and felt the force of it in the air around me, but never had I experienced anything like this.
So, to sate my curiosity I called up (WMS) science teacher Geoff Bergen to help me understand exactly what happened.
In Bergen’s assessment one of two things likely occurred. One possible scenario was that a bolt of lightning forked and one of the less powerful prongs struck a conduit on my home (possibly the old television antennae on the roof that is still attached to a ground wire), grounding itself but leaving behind a mess of charged ions to shock me.
The other possibility — a chilling option — is that the crackle in the air around me was the prelude to a failed lightning bolt headed straight for my living room.
Despite what our eyes may tell us, bolts of lightning actually begin at the ground, Bergen explained, when an area of charged static electricity builds and works up to the clouds, creating the path for the lightning to ride from sky to Earth. The static coming from my hands and the arcs of electricity around the room is what others have reported seeing and feeling just before being struck by lightning.
“In a sense you were struck by lightning, but not really,” Bergen said. The charge built up, “but there was not enough to send the bolt to the ground.”
Either way, I seem to have dodged a lightning bolt.