Monday, August 11, 2003


Veritas Pastoral Intern Struck By Lightning
August 10, 2003

by Glenn Johnson

(Dissociated Press) I have been known to bemoan the lack of significant weather events around here this season. Ne'er more my friend.

I finally got to report a 60 mph wind gust on July 4th. Even before then, there was flooding in Oxford. A few weeks ago, some more storms dismantled a barn roof next to where my wife was teaching summer school and left debris strewn for hundreds of yards into the school parking lot. Though I do not revel in the misfortune of others, as a weather junkie, I can finally heave a sigh of "at last."

But I could have never dreamed of what happened here at 6251 Hester Road on Saturday, August 9th.

At around noon, a slow-moving thunderstorm formed rapidly over Oxford. This storm would start popping lightning and dropping heavy rain and basically park right over us. The lightning was so intense and close that we didn't often hear the rumble of thunder but only concussive explosions. At a time when this writer was rather indisposed in the lavatory, the power had even gone out three times in rapid succession because of these bolts. If I had only known that my intern was a weak conductor for the massive power surge during the second outage....

At one point, Jason had stepped into his room on the second floor to peer out his window at the storm (which is warned against during a thunderstorm but I admit to doing it as well). In mere thousandths of a second before he could become consciously aware of what had just happened, his senses would finally register: 1) the bright flash; 2) the current running up his right leg; 3) the uncanny realization that he had been struck.

Mr. Birchfield was blessed to have not been the conductor for the main lightning channel. That was why he was able to continue unlabored in his breathing, consciousness and general well being. He did, however, complete a "circuit," albeit a rather weak one.

When Jason stepped up to the window, his flip-flopped right foot rested upon the metal grate on the air register. Unbeknownst to him and few thousand feet above him, vigorous winds and updrafts in the thunderstorm were stripping the water droplets of their proper valence, shearing the electrons from the atoms and falling to the bottom of the cloud in an electron avalanche, where the heavier negatively charged electrons gather and punch downward below the cloud. This channel, called a "stepped leader" is the beginning of the strike and is made possible by the leftover positively charged protons. It pushes downward at a rate of about 10,000 meters/second. As it gets closer to the ground, it attracts contact streamers which are basically positively charged streams flowing upward to meet the stepped leader. They basically flow up any object in the area where this is occurring. This woman and her friends was severely injured when lightning struck a few seconds after the photo. This is what it looks like for a human being to be in the process of becoming a contact streamer (the hair stands out on end as a result of the protons flowing out the strands). Had Jason been in the main channel area, he would have experienced the same sensation.

There was no telling how many contact streamers there were in the area for this lightning bolt. It was a blessing that the channel that made the connection was not the streamer that made it's way from the ground into our heat pump and through the duct work that Jason happpened to be standing on at that moment. The bolt was close enough however to fill the Birchfield streamer channel with a mild electric current and give his right leg a start while busting out our power and my weather station. Undoubtedly, the major current that did make it into the house was routed by the wiring.

Well, that's the science of it. And the theological significance? After this summer, I'd say his stint as a human lightning rod is apropos.

Here are some fun lightning facts since we're talking about it:

Average number of thunderstorms occurring worldwide at any given moment - 2000

Average number of lightning strikes worldwide every second - 100

Average number of lightning strikes worldwide per day - 8.6 Million

Average number of lightning strikes in the USA per year - 20 Million

VOLTS in a lightning flash - between 100 Million and 1 Billion

AMPS in a lighting flash - between 10,000 and 200,000

The average lightning flash would light a 100 watt light bulb for 3 months.