The weather board has “chance of afternoon showers” stenciled there since July. It’s the standard late summer forecast as the monsoon season builds when the temperatures climb. Except for this year, the thunderstorm season showed up early.
Some days, it’s deceptive. A wide, bright blue sky in the morning that seems so benign and incapable of unleashed fury. Not a cloud in sight, but as the morning progresses, the sky starts to betray what may come. Fluffy, white cumulus clouds begin to float overhead, a parade of powder puffs. Though these clouds also seem somewhat tame, their presence and buildup is worth noting.
As the morning passes and temperatures rise, so do these cumulus clouds. Mixing and growing into cumulonimbus clouds, they gain in stature and resemble small eastern states. Their dark underbellies look saturated, overloaded to the point of release. Welcome, to the summer monsoon season in the Southwest.
From June to mid-September, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm. A shower might last 30 minutes and be so localized that the ground is dry a mile away. Lightning often accompanies these showers, and single tree fires may result. There is a real danger to these storms; hence, you’ll see the locals descending from the high peaks in the early afternoon. Better to start early than to tempt Thor.
On one hand, these are high risk storms. I’ve been caught out in enough of them, lightning cracking all around and the smell of burning wood too close for comfort. On the other hand, these storms can be more spectacular than a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and the sweet scent of sagebrush may permeate the air after a good downpour.
So what is one to do if the proverbial lightning strikes and you’re too far away from a building or vehicle?
First off, lightning is a giant spark of electricity that can raise the air temperature by 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and contains more electrical volts than the Gross National Product of some small countries. Thunder is the sound associated with the lightning due to the rapid expansion of the air. Since light travels faster than sound you can roughly estimate a storm’s distance by counting “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, etc.” until you hear the peal of thunder. At that speed, five seconds equals one mile. Even if you can hear thunder, you are within 10 miles of a storm and in potential danger.
Also, an estimated one hundred lightning bolts strike the Earth every second – of course that number is elevated due to the number of strikes from the numerous thunderstorms during the monsoon or wet season. With that kind of frequency, the odds of getting zapped are about 1 in 3,000.
When storms bring lightning, your best bet is to go inside a building (not a metal shelter!) or into a vehicle. You want to be somewhere where the electrical current is conducted from the point of contact to the ground - you do not want to be that point. If not, avoid exposed high points, trees, tall poles, or being in the water. Lightning can strike twice in the same location, so forget that myth. A cave that is more than twice as deep as the opening is high is safer than a shallow one. Get low, spread out from your companions and think happy thoughts. Oh yeah, and believe that forecast – chance of afternoon thunderstorms.