July 15, 2006

Struck by Lightning

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Let me start off by pointing out that the title of this post quite accurately describes what happened to me today, and not in any metaphoric sense. I was literally struck by lightning a few hours ago.

Of course, I was not struck directly--had I been, I would not be sitting at home right now. Let me explain what happened.

This morning, I decided to do some birding around the bay. I was going to make a bit of a day of it, starting at the Tokyo Minato Yacho Koen near Haneda Airport and then making my way over to Kasai Rinkai, near Tokyo Disneyland. The weather was sunny and hot--around 100 degrees when I left.

When I got to the bird park, there were clouds off in the distance, but it still seemed nice. Not many birds were there, however (I'll do a birding report later). I did manage to get some nice shots of a Little Ringed Plover when the thunder really got started. It had been thundering for maybe fifteen minutes, but not very frequently. But then it really started going, maybe three or four strikes a minute. While some parts of the sky were still bright, dark clouds from the north were starting to cover the sky above. With my rainsuit stashed in my scooter (it's always there, for instances like this) on the other side of the park, I figured it was time to get the hell out of Dodge and get to my suit before I got soaked.

Halfway out, the lightning was going pretty steady, bolts flashing all around--which for me, is pretty cool. I love lightning and thunder, and still do. In fact, I've always wanted to get a good recording of that sheet-ripping sound of nearby lightning. So while I walked out of the park, I had my camera on, and was using the voice notation feature as an audio recorder, in case a good peal of thunder presented itself.

At that point, I crossed the bridge which goes over the railroad tracks and roads that lead in to the adjacent shipping/distribution center. I saw a couple with a video camera on the middle of the bridge, and asked them if they were filming birds. They said they were filming the planes going into Haneda. Just after I walked by them, it happened.

Now, remember I said I was recording at that time. Well, here it is:

Me getting struck by lightning (MP3 version, 375 KB)
Me getting struck by lightning (WAV version, 1.3 MB)
Those are two different versions of the same recording. By the way, it sounds best when listened to with headphones and the sound way up. When you listen to it, you'll hear sounds you may not recognize without introduction. First, you'll hear thunder in the background, a previous strike that was still echoing. You'll hear a rhythmic crunching sound, which is me walking on the gravel bridge; I take about five steps before it hits me. Then you'll hear a static crackle, then me yelping in shock as the lightning hits me, then the crack of immediate thunder accompanying the lightning strike. Then you hear my reaction, and I speak to the couple I just passed on the bridge, as a flock of starlings flushed by the lightning can be heard flying overhead.

Here's a longer version (MP3, 580 KB) with more audio before and after the strike. It's also censored--bleeped when I cussed, a version I made for my class (of course I'm going to play it for them). In this version, you hear me talking to the couple before the strike, and you can also hear a few more comments by me as I walk off the bridge.

As I mentioned in the recording, I felt the lightning strike. That was the yelp I made; I felt an electric shock in my left foot, which I presume was the one touching the bridge as I walked. I did not see the lightning bolt, disappointingly--it struck behind me--but I did notice the strobe effect from the flash all around me. Since I didn't see it directly, I don't know how far away it was, but it was probably within ten feet of me, maybe hitting the railing of the bridge. But consider: I was wearing rubber-soled shoes, it was dry, and I was on gravel, and still I got a strong electric shock to my foot.

At that point, I just figured that it was a really good idea to get out of there, so I did, making it back to my bike just after the rain started. I was going to hide out in a tunnel until the lightning stopped, but by the time the rain started, the lightning had stopped, so I headed on home. As it turned out, the rain only lasted fifteen or twenty minutes, but I was wet enough not to want to go on with the birding.

Besides, once you get hit by lightning, isn't that pretty much going to be the high point of the day?

Posted by Luis at July 15, 2006 04:15 PM

Be careful !!!!

Posted by: ykw at July 17, 2006 03:55 AM

Wow! Cool story! :)

For what it's worth... the rubber of your shoes isn't going to give you diddly-squat for protection from lightning. Hell, the rubber and air of your car's tires won't do it, either; the reason you're relatively safe in a car is because the metal body will conduct the electricity to the ground without going through you.

Consider: Lightning is electricity that is jumping across hundreds or thousands of feet of AIR. It is often given a bit of a head start by some rainfall, but consider the massive amounts of electricity that's flowing and the size/volume of the rain (its carrying capacity) and we quickly realize the sheer power of it.

Compared with that power, a little rubber in your shoes or tires is nothing.

Luis, you are a very lucky guy! :)

Posted by: Paul at July 17, 2006 04:21 PM

Cool story indeed!

Scary, but it's kind of hilarious to ear... now that we know that you're ok!!

"Kzzztt... arrghh..." :)

Posted by: Leonel Martins at July 17, 2006 08:16 PM

Yeah, the more I listen to it, the more fascinated I am by what happened. All the details--the birds flying, the exact sounds--really come to life. I am really glad that I was audiotaping that.

And really, listening on headphones or a really good speaker system makes a huge difference. The thunder in the background sounds less like wind blowing on the mic, and the peal of thunder when the lightning hits is just awesome.

It made me think, though--I'd be kind of interested is I *always* carried a mic around, so I could play back parts of my life for review. I know, other people wouldn't like it... but with tech developing as it is, I would not be surprised if some people actually started doing that. A great way to be honest with yourself, at least.

Posted by: Luis at July 18, 2006 02:11 AM

The issue of the rubber shoes, from an electrial theory point of view, is an interesting one.

If someone is on a bridge and is the highest point within 200meters what is the expected shock they would receive if wearing rubber shoes vs no rubber, for a lightning bolt somewhat overhead?

There are 3 factors involved here:

* probability of being hit
* amount of current that flows in the body after being hit
* amount of current that diverts to other paths to ground after being hit.

When lightning goes to touch down, and it looks for a path that is the least resistance to ground, approximately. I say approximately since we sometimes see lightning that selects a path that is not the lowest resistance path. The resistance of the body is lower than air. I'm not sure about rubber vs air. They are probably similar. They are both high. So rubber + body would be high and feet in wet salty water + body would be low (from head to ground). So the probability of being hit with feet in wet salty water is higher than that of being hit w/ rubber shoes. I'm not sure how much higher.

Then the next issue is the current divider. If there is 10KV at the head and 0Volts at the floor, and the resistance of body + shoes is R1, and the resistance of air from head to floor is R2, then the current divides proportional to the resistance (i.e. current in first case is current_total * R2/(R1+R2)). In other words, if the resistance through the body+shoes is higher than air, then some of the current starts to divert through the air. My guess is that most will flow through the body since it is lower than air.

The third issue is current. If there is 10KV at the head and 0V at the feet, then the current flow is Current = volts / resistance. And the current is proportional to pain felt by person (and harm). So increasing resistance with rubber shoes is Very helpful here.

In conclusion, I think rubber shoes, or any insulator between person and ground, is very helpful at reducing injury.

This talks more about lightning


Posted by: ykw at July 19, 2006 03:17 AM

I enjoyed reading this story, Luis. You definitely displayed the polished skills of a writing teacher. It would be a great writing sample to show your students, except that it's such a unique experience that they would no doubt conclude that they couldn't possibly have something as interesting to write about.

I'm glad you're OK.

Posted by: Andrew at July 19, 2006 02:10 PM

I think the rubber shoes and dry ground did protect you. Most lightning strikes occur when a positive charge gathers on the ground underneath a corresponding negative charge in the clouds. As the stroke occurs, the majority of the electrical charge follows the main path of the stroke down from the cloud. When these electrons hit the ground they spread out over the ground and can travel some distance along surfaces. This is called "ground current effect" and it causes about 30% of lightning injuries. Another possibility is "splash" in which the current jumps off of a nearby object to a victim. Splash also causes about 30% of lightning injuries. For more information on lightning injuries, check out http://www.emedicine.com/emerg/topic299.htm.

In any case, I am very glad that you survived and thanks for sharing that amazing recording.

Posted by: David Syzdek at August 17, 2006 10:24 AM

I was struck by a side-flash in 2004. I now am having serious medical problems. It's not quite so cool to be struck by lightning if you ask me.

Posted by: Angie at August 27, 2006 06:20 AM

Angie: my apologies, I did not intend to make light of more serious strikes and the very unpleasant effects thereof.

Posted by: Luis at August 27, 2006 12:31 PM

Hello! Searching a Lightning.wav i came to your site... Wow, what an amazing story! If it's ok with you, I'll use it in my music? It's an amazing piece of sound too! Greets and happy you survived this encounter with nature, Thomas from Den Helder, NL

Posted by: Thomas at March 4, 2007 10:59 PM


Sure, go ahead--on two conditions. First, that the music is not commercial (if it is, contact me further and we can discuss it), and second, send me a copy when you're done.

My email is in the "About" page.

Posted by: Luis at March 4, 2007 11:03 PM