An Electrical Storm

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
12:26 P.M.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

I had a long, meaningful conversation with a girl last night. It wasn’t under starlight, it was under partly cloudy skies. But hey, those were just as cool.

She asked me why I wished for bad weather. I was confused; I never wish for bad weather, I only wish for good weather. This was the catalyst for a deep discussion about the way we interpret things in the world. Sometimes, our interpretations of things are similar. Coffee may taste bad for one person, but it may taste worse for another. Sometimes, they couldn’t be more different. One zoologist could take pride in their array of ant farms, while one toddler with psychopathic tendencies could take pride in the number of ants they’ve fried with a magnifying glass. We all know that no two lightning bolts are the same, and no two thunderclaps are the same either. Because our life experiences are different, no two opinions are the same either.

We got shaken by one bolt of lightning. The thunder, although loud, was not booming. However, it was very prolonged. I have noticed that in storms like the ones that came through last night – rather dry ones with their bases at very high elevations – tend to have longer and more “muffled” thunderclaps than the ones we associate with other thunderstorms we see, such as spring convective showers that roll through our area or the great supercells of the Great Plains. Many of these other thunderstorms have much lower bases and therefore have more “cloud-to-ground” strikes than the ones we saw last night, which have more “cloud-to-cloud” strikes.

But this begs the question: why do higher storms produce a lower percentage of CG (cloud to ground) strikes? Well, Chris Callais, a man I met on Facebook who is a University of Utah graduate with a degree in atmospheric sciences, told me that the atmosphere acts like a giant capacitor of sorts, and the greater the distance between the two surfaces of the ‘capacitor’, the higher the amount of voltage required to bridge it. Things in nature don’t go searching for the most difficult and complex way to do something – they take the easiest path possible. There are some instances in which you can see a lightning bolt travel all the way from the top of a thunderhead to the ground (technically, the big bolt you see is the return stroke, which starts from the ground and heads skyward), but these strikes are abnormal and can be thought of as “supercharged strikes.” This is all stuff I will learn about in the coming years unless I drop out of school to spend my days sipping margaritas in Cancun. Even then though, I’d be on the blog, jamming to some Jimmy Buffet as I write up my posts.

The whole setup for the electrical storm was pretty complicated. The forecasts made yesterday weren’t perfect, but they were close. Here’s a comparison of the infrared satellite picture last night to the forecast for last night. The low marine clouds shown off the Oregon and Californian coasts don’t show up on the infrared satellite picture because they have relatively warm cloud tops, and the infrared satellite scale is based on the temperature of the cloud tops and the corresponding amount of radiation emitted (colder clouds emit less radiation and are usually higher in the atmosphere, so tall clouds with tops reaching significant heights show up on the satellite and can correspond to regions of precipitation). Often, the coldest cloud tops in the world that emit the least infrared radiation are the thunderstorms in the tropics because they have the highest cloud heights. Pretty crazy, huh?

NWS Infrared West Coast Satellite – 08:00 pm PDT, Tue 16 Jul 2013
Valid 08:00 pm PDT, Tue 16 Jul 2013 – 27hr Fcst – UW 00z WRF-GFS: 4km column integrated cloud water

One thing that the models did not handle very well was the onset of lightning. I don’t have access to lightning forecast data (or I don’t know where I can find it), but the National Weather Service was calling for the lightning and thunder to begin ~8 P.M. yet, in their 8:30 P.M. forecast discussion yesterday, they said:

"THE THUNDER THREAT IS LOOKING MARGINAL BUT IT CANNOT BE COMPLETELY RULED OUT."

After getting that big strike around 10 P.M., a swath of storms rolled through the area around 2 A.M. Reports say that 120-130 lightning strikes occurred west of the Cascades. East of the Cascades, the number was closer to, get this, 2,500 strikes. I was asleep at the time; even though I am a heavy sleeper, you would think that all the thunder would wake me up. Remember how I was talking about the muffling of CC lightning above, though? It could have been possible that this lightning was heat lightning, which is a useless name that defines itself as lightning without audible thunder. Lightning always makes thunder, but I have noticed that CG strikes are much louder and crisper than the CC strikes. Perhaps this was due to some sort of destructive interference with some aspects of the clouds (maybe water droplets?), but I don’t know. Since the cloud bases were so high and the rainfallĀ  was relatively low thus allowing lighting to be visible for dozens of miles, it is possible that the strikes were simply too distant to be heard even if they were CG. The thunder at 2 A.M. was accompanied by some rain woke my mom up, but my mom wakes up at everything, so that’s not saying much.

Below are some pictures of the lightning taken by Matthew Charchenko at the end of his driveway on Novelty Hill, which is northeast of Redmond. These pictures were taken around 2 A.M., with the second picture down of the big bolt taken at 2:34 A.M. He’s a very ambitious kid who is not only knowledgeable beyond his years in the atmospheric sciences realm but is, as you can see, an extraordinary photographer. He explained to me that he captured these strikes using a long exposure shot, where you keep the shutter open for 15-20 and pray that a strike occurs during that time frame. Check out his Facebook page @ Matthew Charchenko Photography.

John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the 19th century, once said this: “there is no such thing as bad weather, only different types of good weather.” One person may not completely enjoy the weather occurring in their area, but you can bet that another person is fascinated by it, even if they are lying right next to you.

Thanks for reading! You guys are the best.
Charlie

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