Was I struck by lightning?
August 28, 2006 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Was I struck by lighting?

I was walking on a hill in Abiquiu, New Mexico in the early evening when a bolt of lightning hit somewhere *very* close- if not the hill I was on, probably the huge mesa nearby. I felt a "pop" or "crack" on my right foot and saw a bright spark at the same place. Milliseconds later, the crash of thunder happened.

Aside from my right leg feeling funny for a few minutes, I was unharmed. What happened?
posted by squishy to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Having witnessed firsthand somebody being struck by lightning (big electrical storms still sorta scare me), I would hazard a guess that you were not struck.

What may have happened was that lightning struck very nearby, and part of the charge may have conducted to you... Was the ground wet?
posted by kaseijin at 9:49 PM on August 28, 2006

Response by poster: The ground probably had some moisture from light rain earlier in the day, but it wasn't very wet.

What happened to the person who was struck?
posted by squishy at 9:53 PM on August 28, 2006

Whatever happened, you're lucky. New Mexico leads the US in lightning deaths. I wouldn't be out around Abiquiu during a storm. (But you can get struck anywhere.)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:02 PM on August 28, 2006

When lightning strikes the ground near you, there is an enormous voltage gradient from the strike site running through the ground under you.

If your feet are far apart and spread in a line away from the strike then there can be a thousand volt difference between your two feet.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:03 PM on August 28, 2006

Ground voltage gradients are also the reason why it's a very bad idea to take an outdoor whizz if you're close to a large electrical substation.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 PM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Every time I read a story about somebody getting hit by lightning, they end up getting very badly burned and/or thrown several feet and/or otherwise *know* that they've been hit by lightning. I have a feeling that if you'd been hit, you would definitely know it.
posted by antifuse at 1:43 AM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: You were almost certainly bitten by ground voltage gradient. Consider that the strike is at maybe 108V or more and that it dissipates over an radius of 10-100m depending on how conductive the ground is. That means that the E field in the ground is about 106 to 107V.m-1. If your feet are half a meter apart and the bolt is directly to your side, there's probably half a million volts between your feet, though with a fair amount of impedance in series.

People aren't killed by that effect so often since we tend to wear non-conductive shoes and keep our feet together. Cows on the other hand aren't so lucky on either count and are frequently killed by ground gradient.

Since you are usually more conductive than the earth the flash/pop you saw/heard was your shoe arcing over. Current would have gone up one leg and down the other; the other shoe perhaps didn't arc because it was wetter, the sole had worn through or it arced internally. An electric shock like that will make muscles and nerves misbehave and "feel funny" at a minimum; if you'd been closer you could have been thrown by leg contractions or even burnt quite badly.

Go buy a lottery ticket :)
posted by polyglot at 2:33 AM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ground gradient. But if it helps, you could visualize that getting hit by lightning isn't so much a binary state, yes or no, as it is a range of voltages you could be exposed to, and the closer you are to the outside of the range of the thing, the less you'll get.

I had a relative who was one of 6 standing under a tree (yeah, bad plan) and the farthest from it. She was the only one who did not have permanent damage of some kind. The one closest to the tree lost her sight in one eye (recently restored after 70 years) and one of the first ones had her vocal chords burned.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:48 AM on August 29, 2006

What happened to the person who was struck?

He was killed.
posted by kaseijin at 4:59 AM on August 29, 2006

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