Good Question: How does lightning pick its targets?

Written by Alan Gionet
AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Josh Russell is a professional chef at McCormick’s in LoDo. You’d think his neighbor would have given him a little more credit when he saw Russell’s garage on fire and came over to bang on the front door.

“He thought that I was barbequing out in my garage,” Russell said.

Russell got the fire out before the fire department even got there. But it wasn’t his cooking. He knew.

“So my dog jumped like (on) all fours at once and at the time all the hairs on my arms just shot up. It was the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Lightning. The bolt hit the gas meter on the outside of Russell’s house, ran through the wall into the garage, a few feet over and connected with some wood. That started the fire.

Russell’s neighbor should have known better. Last year another house on the same street took a lightning bolt and was severely damaged by fire. And Russell’s house actually belongs to his parents who tell the story of the last time the house was hit 15 years ago. It hit near the peak of the roof.

“Took out my daughter’s stereo, her TV, pretty much everything in her room that was electrical. As well as the TV downstairs,” Konnie Russell said.

Their street sits on top of a hill. That’s about as much as you can say for lightning, it likes an easy target. Lightning is generally attracted to high points and conductors. But only generally.

“Lightning follows all paths to ground, according to their individual resistances,” said lightning expert Rich Kithil of the Louisville-based National Lightning Safety Institute.

In spite of significant study, experts still can’t predict where lightning will strike. It starts with the charge building up in the clouds. Ice rubbing together as hail in a storm cloud builds up a charge, making a storm cloud like a big battery.

“The earth at rest has a nominal voltage,” said Kithil.

As we stand on the earth we’re carrying a charge of about 400 volts. As the charge builds in a cloud, it’s looking for a place to plug in.

“We have one voltage here and another voltage here and maybe lightning wants to go equalize … It can eject itself from the top, from the sides, from the back, from the front of a cloud and travel miles.”

There are even so-called “bolts from the blue.”

A 11-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was hit recently – and survived. The sky above was blue and experts believe the bolt travelled miles before hitting her. That’s what still bugs Kithil.

“If we were standing next to a radio tower here that’s all metal and 200 feet tall — within the unpredictability of lightning’s behavior, it’s possible for lightning to strike the grass 20 feet away, or the top of the tower, or that car, or you or me.”

Is there a way of figuring out where it will hit? No. But it doesn’t hit when there’s no storm.

“It’s not in a box, nice and tidy, fully understood by science,” said Kithil. Lightning is just, “Random. There is no explanation for that that I know of.”


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