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.