Lessons on Static Electricity and Lightning. From the Top of a Thunderstorm. On A Motorcycle

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Last week at this time I was on the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado and it was not a pleasant day. It was a great experience but it was stormy and cold, with rain, lightning and even graupel and, oh yeah — I was on my motorcycle with my wife Tonie as a passenger. Who would’ve thought that on one of the last days of June, one could run into such conditions!

Last week, with thunder and lightning all around, I was on the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado. Photo: Dave Gorham

Who? Anybody on Mt. Evans and on almost any day of the year, that’s who. Mt. Evans, if you haven’t already read the hyperlink to the Wikipedia article I noted above, is a peak on the front range of Colorado. As one of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet) Mt. Evans is the fourteenth highest peak in Colorado, stands tall at 14,265 feet and can be seen from more than 100 miles away. It’s also home to the highest paved road in North America, making it relatively easy to access for tourists from around the world. And last week, I was one of ’em.

I don’t make it to Colorado on my bike very often, only every several years and trips to the summit of Mt. Evans are less frequent (last trip up was in 2006). So even with the promise of chilly and wet conditions delivered by the gate keeper at the base of the climb, I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. However, the standard mountain weather disclaimer should always apply: Conditions at the summit are likely to change and all Hell may break loose with no notice.

Though we didn’t see Hell breaking loose, the conditions at the top were dramatically different than advertised at the base — it was not only colder and wetter, but the graupel and thunderstorms had moved in and, as we later learned, the road up had been closed to motorcycles several minutes after the beginning of our ascent.

Expensive weather sensor: the GPS on my bike shows the altitude near the top of Mt. Evans, the bike's windshield indicates the rain, while the bike's instrument panel shows the 47F temperature. Contrary to popular belief, the radar detector is useless in this type of weather. Photo: Dave Gorham

At those kinds of altitudes you’re more or less climbing into a thunderstorm. The lightning seems closer and more powerful and you can see it well below you, the freezing level is nearby which makes the rain cold and the winds can be calm one moment and howling the next. Plus, you get things like graupel which is not quite snow and not quite hail but more of an icy snow caught in the freezing/melting process of the up and downdrafts within a thunderstorm. You can also get static electricity which can literally make your hair stand on end.

Static electricity is something we’ve likely all experienced, though lightning is the most extreme example of naturally occurring static discharge. You may have experienced static electricity in your own home while walking across your carpet and then touching a path to the ground like a light switch (as a child you may have rubbed your slippers across the carpet over and over hoping to build up the biggest discharge imaginable!). Or you may have read the label on your portable gasoline container to not fill it in the bed of your pickup truck but rather on the ground so as to prevent a static discharge of electricity. In high school you may have created a static discharge using any number of simple experiments. Even rubbing a balloon on your hair (you’ve done that, right?) is the beginning stages of an electrical discharge as the rubbing drives a separation between the positrons and electrons in the balloon and your hair.

Let the experiments begin! At the top of Mt. Evans the separation of positive and negative electrons was evident as positively-charged strands of hair repel from one another. Many survivors of lightning strikes report that immediately before being struck their hair was standing on end and they had a metallic taste in their mouth. If this young woman knew that, she wouldn't be smiling. Photo: Robert Williams

The discharge of lightning (electrostatic discharge) occurs by separating the two electric charges by contact then separation. This drives positively charged positrons to one surface and negatively charged electrons to the other. Though still debatable, this separation occurs in a thunderstorm by the collision of ice particles with graupel. In the collision, positive particles are forced to the ice crystals while the electrons are forced to the graupel. Updrafts and downdrafts further separate the two charges so that the positrons gather in the top of the storm and the heavier graupel-based electrons gather at the bottom. Lightning occurs when the electrical potential becomes great enough to ignite the discharge. Once that happens, the discharge creates the superheated discharge channel which causes the air to so rapidly expand that a shock wave is produced. This shock wave is known more commonly as thunder.

Being on top of a mountain during a thunderstorm is like participating in a real-life electrical experiment — this is not for the feint-hearted. Car drivers can run for cover in their cars (the metal shell will spread the electric charge around the occupants — just don’t touch the hard metal parts inside the car), but we motorcyclists have no such luxury. Mountaintop lightning bolts are frequent, all-encompassing and seemingly close enough to be touched (something not lost on the experiments of Dr. Frankenstein).

No matter the elevation, motorcyclists and even regular people need to be aware of lightning and what to do in a lightning storm. Summer is the peak season for thunderstorms and therefore lightning strikes. In the U.S., an average of 54* people are killed and hundreds injured each year by lightning. With more than 16 million lightning storms worldwide each year, lightning kills about 2,000 people with thousands more injured; it’s the #2 weather-related killer (flooding is #1).

National Weather Service Lightning Awareness Week was last week, but you can visit their site here. Unless you spend all your time indoors, each one of us needs to know the signs of imminent lightning and how to protect ourselves in the event of being caught outside in a storm. Having said that, 1% of all lightning deaths occur to people indoors talking on a land line telephone. Motorcyclists should know when, where and how to take cover and if lighting is striking on the ascent of a mountain climb, going down the road is better than going up.

Last summer I rode my motorcycle, again with my wife as a passenger, to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and toured the on-site weather station and science lab. You can read that article here.

*54 people killed by lightning per year is the number from the National Weather Service’s Lightning Awareness Week’s web page. Another site, LightningAwareness.com states 62 U.S. deaths per year.

Dr. Frankenstein didn't need no fancy-schmantzy hi-tech castle, he just needed to ride his motorcycle to the top of Mt. Evans. Photo: Playbill

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