Long Distance Lightning Events: The Unseen Threats

In September of 2016, The World Meteorological Organization in Geneva confirmed that a new record lightning strike was documented in Oklahoma. After research and data analysis by experts, a lightning strike that measured 199.5 miles was confirmed, a distance that stretched much longer than any expert ever thought possible.

In a previous observation in Southern France, another strike illuminated the sky as it discharged for 7.75 seconds. While many so-called experts deny the existence of strikes often referred to Bolts-Out-Of-The-Blue, these instances offer more hard data proving their existence.

Potential Danger to Your Campus

Fortunately, there are many safety professionals who will see this story and consider the potential ramifications such a strike poses to the safety of those students and visitors on campus. In fact, these are the deadliest lightning events because they begin their journey well beyond the audible or visual range of human detection. Even in the event that a storm is visible on the horizon twenty or thirty miles away, activities are unlikely to be suspended because the storm is so distant. Also, at such a range, no lightning detection system or radar would recommend an activity closure or suspension.

The Science Behind Long-Range Strikes and The Bolt-Out-of-the-Blue

Extensive studies of Earth’s electrostatic atmosphere conducted by the World’s only true lightning prediction system manufacturer have documented these seemingly rare lightning events and analyzed the physics which allow them all to occur. While there are several distinctly different lightning events which are often referred to as Bolts-Out-of-the-Blue or BOB’s, there is a difference in first strikes, strikes from a storm up to fifteen miles away, and the BOB.

Anyone who has experienced one of these unanticipated killers can testify that they never knew there would be lightning anywhere near them. While there may be only one lightning warning system manufactured today which can predict such lightning events, the understanding of these lightning strikes can help anyone raise their own awareness of the unexpected killer.

First-Strike Scenario

Every storm has a first strike. It may come ahead of, behind, to the side of, or back from a developing active storm. In the Southeast, there are frequent small cells which develop around water, hills and areas with highly conductive ground. These singular storm cells begin to grow vertically with virtually no cloud evidence at all.

The early stages of these cells are also invisible to all current radar technology. The vertical growth of the storm creates a huge energy field extending up to 50,000 feet. As the storm grows vertically creating a massive electrostatic field, positive ground energy is pulled from the surrounding earth towards the bottom of the storm’s shadow on the ground. Some of these storms have only a five-mile footprint. Eventually, the storm produces enough negative ions above the ground to discharge to the active positive ions on the earth surface around the base of the storm, and you have a first strike.

That first strike essentially paves the way for many more strikes and most likely hard rain. A first strike from such a storm is not restricted to the area beneath a storm, as it could discharge more than a mile from what may be considered the storm’s footprint. The key to better understanding this type of strike lies in the knowledge that the pre-strike energy takes time to grow prior to the actual discharge.

Lightning From a Storm 10-15 Miles Away

This type of lightning strike is often incorrectly referred to as a BOB. Like a first strike, this form of lightning is a positive-to-negative or a negative-to-positive strike. In this storm scenario, there is an active On-Campus Safety continued storm producing lightning up to fifteen miles away from your location. In all likelihood but not always, you are aware of the storm and can either see distant lightning or hear the very low frequency sound of thunder. To most, it appears safe to remain outdoors playing your favorite game or perhaps just sitting outdoors with friends. While many consider this type of lightning to be rare, it is a major contributor to lightning deaths.

Quite frequently, these storms never follow the single lightning strike and eventually move away from your location. This lightning is also created by the massive energy being created by the distant storm. However, the ground energy being drawn towards that storm finds a phone, light or flagpole, or some highly conductive area in the ground and grows vertically as a streamer. If there is enough attractive energy between that location and the negative leaders in the storm, a strike will occur. Again, these are totally unexpected and deadly. Once again, physics controls the electrostatic nature of lightning which does take time to develop.

The Bolt-Out-Of-The-Blue

The most powerful of all lightning is the Bolt-Out-Of-The-Blue; one of these rare lightning strikes can come from a storm up to sixty miles away. They can also produce more than 250,000 amps. Completely unexpected, these are the real killers. There is a distinct difference between this long-distant traveler and the other two strikes we discussed earlier. This strike is a unique positive-to- positive lightning discharge. This powerful strike begins at the top of a very strong storm where an overflow of positive ions, not used in the normal discharging of the storm, are searching for a discharge point. These strikes can come from a thunderhead fifty thousand feet or higher in the atmosphere.

Far away, an area of uncharged ground demands the attention of the high storm streamer. This area on the ground appears as negative to the streamer. If there is enough energy to overcome the altitude and dry air in this area, you will get a BOB. These are singular strikes in nature and seldom followed by another strike. Even the BOB takes time to develop and complete the long, airborne trip. If you are in the area on the ground of a BOB, you will feel the standing-hair effect, which means you need to immediately move to safety. Imagine standing in Tulsa and being hit by the BOB from a storm in Norman. While I don’t mean to scare anyone, the simple truth is that lightning can be frightening and deadly. Understanding this natural enemy is vital to keeping people safe.

About the Author
Bob Dugan is President of Thor Guard, Inc., and began with the company in 1988. Bob grew up in Albany, NY, and Pittsfield, Ma. Bob graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1975 and now resides in Marco Island, FL. For more information, email Bob at bdugan@ thorguard.com or call 954-835-0900.