From Out of the Blue

From Out of the Blue

On one bright Sunday afternoon in 1939, a high—powered baseball game was going on in the city park of a midwestern town. The sky above was perfectly clear, with not a cloud in sight, when suddenly a large bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck the field between the pitcher and first base. The game was halted abruptly, and many of the fans simply fled. Surely this was a sign — from who knows what or where — that something was amiss. But how could this be? Lightning from a clear blue sky? Can lightning strike anywhere at any time?

Throughout the world there are an estimated sixteen million thunderstorms per year. In fact over 18,000 are in progress at any given moment. As is to be expected in any of these storms, thousands of lighting flashes can and do occur. A first—magnitude electrical storm is brilliant in its beauty and majestic in its power and intensity. But, make no mistake about it, lightning is far more than a dazzling display of nature's pyrotechnics. It can be and often is a dangerous killer, far more than people realize. When a hurricane, tornado, or flood strikes, the media give it thorough coverage, and reports of death and damage are quickly flashed across the country and around the world. This is of course understandable, because a bad storm can cause dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. It becomes a memorable incident worthy of the public's attention.

In contrast lightning picks off it victims in ones and twos, which certainly doesn't make national news. Usually it's worth only a few paragraphs in a local newspaper, just as a fatality in an automobile accident would bring attention only locally. Yet consider the horrible cumulative toll of national highway fatalities, which is only a statistic. The destructive power of lightening is well documented, and it certainly is a swift killer of man and beast. The electrical bolts seem almost selective in where they strike and whom they kill or injure. The United States has the dubious distinction of being favored by lightning, for it kills about 500 people annually.

It is extremely dangerous to seek refuge form an electrical storm by running under a tree, yet that is exactly what more people do when caught outdoors during an electrical storm. Trees, being higher than the surrounding terrain, will often initially attract lightning. The bolt may then jump toward a more desirable conductor or run along the ground striking anything in its path. Flying branches and splinters are an additional hazard. Almost one—third of all lighting victims lose their lives because they have sought shelter under a tree; the victims are not always human.

In the spring of 1989 authorities in South Africa reported a particular event concerning two rhinoceroses that were struck simultaneously by lightning. The pair was in the process of mating under a large, isolated tree, unmindful of the violent electrical storm occurring around them. Their lovemaking ended abruptly when a lightning bolt struck the tree that sheltered them, rendering the pair briefly unconscious. They regained their senses at about the same time, staggered to their feet, stared at each other, and abruptly ambled away in opposite directions. They were doubtless blaming each other for the shock and perhaps, in rhino language, were thinking "You're too much for me!"

When the entire planet is considered, the surface of the earth is struck by approximately one hundred bolts of lightning every single second. This many seem like a tremendous number, but more than four times as many lightning bolts shot through the sky without ever reaching the ground.

The length of a lightning bolt varies considerably. Considering cloud—to—earth discharges, the bolt is rarely more than a mile long, although flashes up to four miles long have been reported by authorities. Larger bolts occur when lightning discharges from one part of the cloud to another, and bolts of ten miles in length have been recorded. The longest by far are discharges from one cloud to another. Since distances between clouds may be considerable, horizontal lighting flashes recorded by radar observations have been as much as one hundred miles long. It is rare, but it does happen, that one of the long horizontal bolts turns eastward and strikes the ground from what appears to be a clear blue sky. This is what happened during the baseball game described earlier.

Lightning strikes appearing with no apparent source have been recorded throughout history. This undoubtedly has been responsible for the phrase "like a bolt from the blue" or "from out of the blue." The meaning is clear: that something unexpected came from nowhere.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth