Struck By Lightning

It’s random and electric, and we are forever drawn to its deadly charms

Photograph by Björn Goldhausen

In the summer of 2002, I was camped at the mouth of the French River, lying on my Therm-a-Rest waiting out a thunderstorm, when my tent was struck by lightning. It was over before I knew what had happened, before adrenalin had any role to play, before fear took over. My tent poles took the charge and I was spared, completely. The narrow escape got me asking around. How often does this happen? It turns out everybody has a lightning story.

Floyd Woods, a retired truck driver from Ardbeg, Ontario, was twelve years old in 1943 when his house was hit. The strike shot through the radio antenna, exploded in the living room intoa blue fireball that roared down the hall, lifting up the linoleum runner by the tacks, ripping the nails out of the floor, splintering the house walls as fine as kindling before it ran off over the bedrock outside and died. Woods’ guitar was hanging on the wall over his bed. Sixty-five years later, he still shakes his head: “That strike burned the guitar strings off, bing, bing, bing, threw me right out of bed and across the room so I ached for a month. Nothin’ will move you faster than lightning. Nothin’.”

When my tent was hit that July evening, I was on a kayak trip, camped on the bony finger of rock where the French River fans into Georgian Bay. We were about to enjoy an appetizer of fresh perch when the wind suddenly came up. Clouds stacked up so quickly it was as though someone hidden behind the scenes was furiously working a bicycle pump. Our guide squinted at the sky and ordered us into our tents. “Get on your mats. Stay until I give the all-clear.” I lay down, marvelling at the near-dark at six o’clock.

Georgian Bay is storm swept all summer long, but this was impressive. In minutes, pattering rain built into a downpour. Thunder boomed continuously, tearing the sky apart. A crack seemed to go off inside my head, and then, suddenly, blue light ignited the tent and streaked down the poles. It was over in a second, maybe less, but the air inside hung there, hazy and peculiar smelling. With the all-clear signal, we gathered outside under the tarp, sunlight gleaming in the wet hollows of the rock. Dean had taken a ground charge through his hand when he leaned off his mat. His wife’s thigh showed the bloom of a bruise, by way of Dean or from a side splash — we didn’t know. A Whitehorse man, too tall for his mat, had been shocked through his feet. My tent fly was pinholed with lesions, and one of the sectioned poles had fused solid. Later, I strapped it to my kayak like an aerial. A reminder. Now it hangs in the White Squall Paddling Centre near Parry Sound, a cautionary totem.

The ball of blue fire that rolled through Floyd Woods’ house was a rare example of a phenomenon that is anything but rare. The planet ripples with lightning. According to Environment Canada, at any given time there are 1,500 to 2,000 active thunderstorms on earth, and tens of millions of lightning points touch ground each year — some 2.7 million across Canada alone. If viewed from space, earth would appear to be pulsing with storms. Of all the forces of nature, lightning is peerless in its intensity, in the magnitude of its release in a single instant. It is the ravishing dagger, the fire bolt joining earth and heaven, part of the original chemical soup. It might not be too great a leap to suppose lightning supplied the electric jolt that kindled organic life. It is Frankenstein in a galactic laboratory.

Like every force of nature, lightning gives and takes away. Its great boon is that it exudes nitrogen, crucial to plants. But its touch is also deadly: lightning scorches whatever it strikes. It chars, explodes, sears. We are thrilled by its terrible beauty, pulsing in and from the clouds, jagging out of a riven sky, but lightning strikes cause huge crop damage, ignite forest fires, and can be lethal to living creatures. The Canadian Lightning Detection Network estimates that lightning kills seven Canadians a year, and injures sixty to seventy. In the wake of a direct strike, most survivors suffer long-term neuropsychiatric effects and/or impaired brain function. Hearing and vision loss, numbness, chronic pain, concentration problems, and psychological disorders are all common results.

It is not just a direct hit that is worrisome. Through its charge, lightning can harm any creature within a fifty-metre radius of the strike point. We can also be harmed collaterally, by getting knocked off our feet by the percussive force or walloped by a struck tree. We cannot outrun it — lightning comes to earth at an estimated 220,000 kilometres an hour — and we cannot dress for it, as a bolt reaches temperatures of 28,000 degrees. We can only hide.

People ask, “Who is most likely to be struck by lightning?” Something stirs in the mind about metal objects, and you might guess golfers, out there on the open fairways with four-irons raised to the sky, or fisherman clutching their metal rods. But you might not think of farmers, perched on their tractors and insulated by rubber tires, and, in fact, farmers it is. Where we need protection is overhead, not on the ground. Closed vehicles act as Faraday cages — named after Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century British physicist and chemist, who specialized in electromagnetism — and are a good choice for cover, because the metal that encases them channels the charge into the ground. As it descends to earth, lightning current is drawn to isolated objects, anything taller than others in its field. This might be a lone tree, a skyscraper, a mound of granite in a riverbed, or you in your small craft on open water. Farmers are vulnerable because of where they are when they’re out in their fields — the tallest object in an open space, plowing or haying as the summer day heats up.

It was thrilling to be struck by lightning, especially harmlessly. It stirred an ancient dread. Our congress with lightning is very old, and there appears to be a powerful subconscious foundation, across cultures and time, in our response to it. Through the ages, it has symbolized divine retributive power, cleansing, and restoring order. Early European and Scandinavian cultures linked it to their deities, as an emblem of the gods’ potent, mercurial moods. In ancient Rome, Jove tossed thunderbolts to signify his fury and judgment. People killed by lightning were refused burial rites, and their deaths were taken as a mark of blight. Athenians fenced the ground where lightning had struck, consecrating it to Zeus, the bearer of storms. For many American Indian nations, thunder and lightning were the province of animal spirits, strong and magical. Scurvy-ridden Europeans beaching in the New World in their rotten little tubs were able to overwhelm strapping aboriginal populations largely because their cannon blasts were mistaken for lightning. Strikes were thought to heal or spawn life, as well as destroy. Medicines have been made from stones struck by lightning. Hindu and Mayan cultures held that certain vision-inducing mushrooms arose from lightning-scorched ground.

Still, it’s the randomness of lightning that is so fascinating. Why did it strike one open-water crossing and not another, arrest the breathing of this hapless climber on a rock face and not that one? We can observe it all we want, but we don’t know what it will do. We do know, however, that it does strike twice and plays favourites. The CN Tower in Toronto is frequently hit, often repeatedly during a single storm — once, in 1991, it was struck twenty-four times in less than two hours. (Like other towers around the world, it serves as a protective, benevolent guardian, taking the charges — and the heat — as smaller fry sleep.) But as it turns out, Canada has several natural hot spots where lightning activity far exceeds normal frequency. Georgian Bay is one such zone, as I discovered, and the flat, hot badlands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are another. Hailstorm Alley, near Sundre, Alberta, in the foothills of the Rockies, is the most notorious of all.

We are rather susceptible in Canada. Our country is mostly landscape, and we’re often roaming around it, beyond broadcast areas, beyond cover. To prepare ourselves, we have to be our own Environment Canada: we have to learn the rudiments of storms, know the terrain we’re travelling through, be able to tell a front from a squall line, a stratus cloud from a nimbus. Thunderstorms do give notice — wickedly short, usually, but always distinctive. After my brush on Georgian Bay, I boned up, taking myself to the You and Your World shelf at the library.

Storms rely on the rapid, sustained uplifting of air, especially warm, moist air. This is why they occur frequently in summer, when the ground has grown hot by late afternoon. Open fields heat faster than forests or water, rocky slopes faster than ground covered by vegetation; hence the sudden onrush of the storm we experienced, parked on the warm rock enfolding Georgian Bay, just at cocktail hour at the end of a hot day.

Convection fuels thunderstorms, either from warm air rising off the ground, or from a drop in temperature in the atmosphere. Cheery, popcorn white clouds in the sky mean unstable air has stopped rising and has reached the dew point, when its temperature equals that of the surrounding air. These cumulus clouds can persist for days or they can dissipate, but if warm thermal air keeps pushing up, they often develop into cumulonimbus clouds. When this happens, an aerial game of pinball begins. Droplets bounce around, collide, pick up grit, old volcanic ash, the detritus of life below, all of it freezing into ice crystals in the troposphere. Air travellers experience this as turbulence, their plane passing through cumulonimbus clouds, lurching in the chaos, the cabin windows dashed with rain or hail, until the aircraft emerges from the cloud.

On the ground, this intense interior action looks like a change from roly-poly clouds jogging in the sky to clouds darkening and mounting into towers. This formation means a storm is brewing. Inside the cloud, ice crystals and raindrops zing about in all directions, slamming into and fusing with one another, growing larger and heavier, until they start falling through the cloud as rain or snow or hail.

Lightning gets into the action through an electrical charge that builds during these high-wire collisions. When a beauty of a storm is brewing, a negative charge heats up at the base of the cloud. The earth’s surface tends to be negatively charged, and since like charges repel, current at the bottom of the cloud draws away from the ground, leaving a positive charge in the air. This is that pre-storm sense one gets, the hair on the head lifting slightly, the air freighted with electricity.

It’s in the nature of air to act as a buffer, to resist electrical flow, and for a time it contains the mounting charge. But it can’t hold out forever. At a certain point, the negative charge from the cloud expends itself, not all at once, which would be an atomic reaction, but haltingly, in a “stepped leader” about as thick as a pencil. This negative charge gropes toward the ground, moving in a searching way, like a lonely drunk in a bar looking for a connection. Eventually, it attracts a positive charge from something tall on the ground — a tree or a tower, a farmer on a tractor. When lightning strikes, the charges have connected in a streamer, a flood of positive current that surges back up into the cloud, spectacularly hot, so intensely superheating the surrounding air that a shock wave bulges out, faster than the speed of sound.

Thunder is the sonic boom we hear when the percussive force breaks the sound barrier. Once the stepped leader from the cloud locks to the streamer from the ground, a channel opens for pulses of electricity to pass through, producing several flashes. We see the lightning before we hear the boom, but the thunder actually occurs first; the speed of light outraces the sound of thunder to our senses.

In its defence, lightning is only doing its job. It’s the celestial housekeeper, balancing an overcharged heaven and earth.

I am standing on the north shore of Lake Superior beside my kayak, debating whether to make the twelve-kilometre crossing to the Slate Islands. The steep spruce hills on the islands are criss-crossed with caribou trails, and the wild, broken beaches on the south side face an infinity of sky and water. I’m alone, a competent paddler used to solo travel, vigilant and informed about the genesis of storms, and I’m longing to go. In the morning, I tune in to a broadcast: there’s a storm watch in effect. Driving up the day before, I noticed the blue sky beginning to sprout low cumulus clouds. Today the clouds are more altocumulus, mid-level, joined like loaves of bread. The sun is shining, but the sky to the west has a purple tinge, and a wind is gathering. It’s the height of summer. If there are clouds in the morning, an afternoon storm is a probability. Do I have time to cross?

Paddling at six kilometres an hour, I need two hours when I’m not in the storm radius and not the tallest object in this watery field. I’ve almost decided to chance it when I glimpse a flash of lightning, lovely and silent on the violet horizon to the west. There’s no thunder, which means the storm is at least sixteen kilometres off, but that’s no comfort. Lightning is so volatile it can easily strike ahead of the thunderheads from that distance. Another flash, with time-delayed thunder following. I apply the old “flash-bang” guideline, count the interval between seeing the flash and hearing the bang, divide my count, in this case twenty seconds, by five, and calculate that the storm is four miles, or six kilometres, away. I wait and count the next round, with the same result. This could mean the storm is stalled, but it might not. I glance at the enticing bulk of the Slates across the channel and know I’m not going. I’ll have to wait until whatever is coming has passed.

I’m lucky to have the option. On an adventure that’s already under way, we can get caught out, no refuge in sight. Safety instructors say that if you hear thunder or see lightning, don’t bother to stop and count. Move to an area of less exposure immediately. Get off the water, down from the ridge, away from bare ground. Avoid dithering. Look for a stand of trees of similar height — but avoid tree roots — or look for ground covered in vegetation. And remember, lightning is a master of afterthought. It can strike from a clear blue sky, well after the storm has been squelched. Stay where you’ve chosen to be for thirty minutes after the last clap.

Our encounter on Georgian Bay created quite a stir among safety instructors at the local Wilderness Medical Associates, because we got into our tents. That was throwing the book out the window, according to some of the associates, who advise that if you can’t retreat to safe ground the best approach is to present as small a contact surface as possible. Get your metal-framed pack off your back, duck down in the “lightning crouch” (scrunched on the balls of your feet, your head covered by your arms), and wait it out.

But when Tim Dyer, owner of White Squall Paddling Centre, just off Georgian Bay, heard what we had done, he stood by his guides’ decision. “Safety in a lightning storm is a mug’s game,” he says ruefully. “Given the choice between crouching in a position only a human pretzel can assume or heading for the — all right, dicey — shelter of my tent, I’ll get into my tent.”

For whatever reason, the damage lightning causes to people and animals is hugely under-reported. From the cases that do present themselves, we know that harm, where fatal, is clear enough, and where non-fatal and lingering, it’s much harder to diagnose and treat. If you’re among the 20 percent of lightning victims who are immediately struck dead, you’ve died because the electrochemical rhythm of your heart has been interrupted, stopping it. The body’s exquisite bioelectrical balance has been given a jolt from which it cannot recover. (With its intrinsic pacemaker, the heart on rare occasions rouses itself and resumes beating. A counsellor in the Temagami region of Ontario once gave cpr to a young camper who’d been struck and was showing no pulse, and the boy came around.)

The other serious effect, if a strike doesn’t stop the heart, is that it can halt breathing by shutting down the respiratory drive. (In either event, the medical guides say, try artificial resuscitation. There is no danger to the person giving it, as the current is long gone.)

Skin burns are rare. Lightning travels over surfaces so fast, it doesn’t have a chance to burn. Burning happens secondarily, if there’s metal or cloth or water on the skin to retain heat. The signature lightning leaves on the skin is peculiar to it, a ferning pattern similar to silver veins in rock.

I continue to be baffled by why the strike that hit my tent was so glancing. Was it side splash, the point coming to ground somewhere nearby, leaping a fallen log or tag alder and hitting my tent somewhat tired out? Or was it the speed of the bolt that spared me, current zooming through the poles at 220,000 kilometres an hour? But if lightning’s temperature is thousands of degrees, why didn’t my tent simply vaporize?

I’ll never know. What was plain in that particular storm, in that particular place, is that my aluminum poles acted similar to a Faraday cage around me and took the heat. Another time, who knows?

The more we learn, the more capricious and imponderable lightning becomes. It’s the wild card, familiar but eternally a wonder. How many imponderables do we have left? We have so mastered, so paved over this world, but there is still something ungovernable we must live with, a supremely random force of nature, quite outside ourselves.

In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, Henry Perowne watches a burning air-plane he mistakes for a comet drop across the black sky, and feels the “leap of gratitude for a glimpse, beyond the earthly frame, of the truly impersonal.” Lightning’s ultimate benefit, perhaps, is that it puts us in our place, reminds us of nature’s power, and suggests that the celestial order of things has its own rules and should not be trifled with. Still, for tens of thousands of years humans have craved inspiration, a state of awe. That lightning comes threaded with danger makes us cautious, as it should, but we remain bound to seek it out, even at our peril.

Jill Frayne