By VICTOR C. ROGUS
Arcadian Science Editor
Although badly light polluted for nighttime astronomy, Florida has had some of the best lightning displays I have ever seen.
Lightning strikes happen when negative ions from the clouds and positive ions from the ground meet the air.
Photographing lightning displays can be a lot of fun, however great care should be exercised when trying to capture a lightning strike with a camera. A bolt of lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun, some 15,000 to 60,000 degrees. The sun’s surface, by comparison, is a relatively cool 10,000 degrees.
According to the U.S. National Weather Service, 73 Americans each year die from lightning strikes, and hundreds more suffer serious injuries.
Heat lightning is a flash caused by distant lightning strikes reflecting off high clouds near the horizon This is usually seen on warm evenings. Living in Florida, you know that at certain times thunderstorms appear nearly every evening, almost like clockwork. Should a lightning strike pure and dry silica sand, for instance, that can be turned into glass instantly, a testament to the power of a lightning strike.
A word on lightning safety, however: I cannot express enough the dangers of thunderstorms and lightning. My mom and grandmother told stories of living in Wisconsin on a farm and often finding a dead cow after a thunderstorm. And that cow would always be found near a pond and a wire fence. Lesson learned … avoid water and wire fencing during thunderstorms. Also stay off high and open ground when outdoors, where you are most likely to attract a strike.
If indoors ... avoid water, as plumbing fixtures in a shower or toilet can conduct electricity and electrocute you. Stay away from doors and windows, and take shelter for a full 30 minutes until after you hear the last thunderclap.
Storm-chasing can be an exciting pursuit, but like I said, it can be dangerous. Florida has some great horizons to watch the movements of weather systems. I have done this against mom’s strong advice. Lightning mostly originates in dense and towering cumulonimbus clouds, and only about 25 percent of lightning strikes reach the ground. The rest are cloud-to-cloud strikes.
Atmospherics like lightning, rainbows and meteor showers are part of the natural world and can be studied along with nighttime astronomy to help in building a portfolio of sky photography. With a still camera, lightning strikes may be captured on a tripod using the camera’s “bulb” setting and anticipating the movement of a thunderstorm. But I have found a video format to be most useful, as well. I have made some of my best lightning strike captures from the front porch with both camera formats (again, against mom’s advice).
So, it is safety first! Take cover during thunderstorms. Find a safe location to set up a camera, then follow the storm system. I have found a higher “f” stop to be useful to reduce the glow of ambient light and to allow for a longer exposure.
A NASA study suggests that Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela holds the record for the most lightning strikes, with nearly 300 per night. In the U.S., Florida holds the title for the most lightning strikes, with a whopping 1.45 million per year, which sadly includes 62 deaths in the past 10 years. The Empire State Building in New York is on average struck about 25 times per day.
There are ways to get hurt doing sky photography ... or observations of the sun without proper filtering, or dealing with drunks on a deserted backroad. Fatigue while driving and chasing storms comes to mind. Putting a camera in the right place at the right time can sometimes override our common sense. I cannot stress enough the idea of getting your photo and returning home safely with your image. This is all part of the process of building a fine sky portfolio.
Lightning can be deadly but it can be amazing to witness and photograph. But please remember SAFETY FIRST!
Former Arcadian Victor C. Rogus (F.R.A.S.) is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, living in Sedona, Arizona