The Habersham County sky looked mottled with grey clouds, but didn’t appear threatening that early afternoon a few days ago. Five miles after passing the county line on Ga-365, things changed. The horizon turned black. Streaks of lightning flashed toward Gainesville, and thunder was audible even over the rumble of the old Harley. A serious revision of my itinerary was in order.
A lightning storm puts different requirements on the operator of a motorcycle, bicycle or tractor than on the driver of a full-roofed sedan. Some think that the rubber tires of a vehicle, or even wearing shoes with rubber soles, protect from lightning stroke. This is a deadly mistake. Lightning is an electrical current passing between a cloud and the ground, or between clouds. Its voltage is in the hundreds of millions, with electrical power up to 100,000 Amps. As a reality check, a standard power outlet carries 112 Volts and 15 Amps.
My amateur welding (with amateur-quality results) showed how easily an electrical arc melts solid metal. Translate this into an arc spanning 25,000 feet. Clearly, a half-inch of rubber doesn’t make any difference. People in a car tend to be safe if the car has a solid roof. The full metal cage of the vehicle runs the electrical current off. But bikes, convertibles, tractors and all-terrain vehicles don’t offer this protection.
Reports of people being burned to a crisp by lightning are rare. Cardiac arrest is much more common. The human heart operates on a series of electrical impulses that make the heart muscle “tick”. Massive electric shock from lightning can stop the heart, killing the victim if CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) isn’t available immediately. Even in cases where one isn’t in the path of the current, there’s still the problem of thunder. My welder only generates a hiss from expanding air around the arc. A natural lightning flash literally makes the air column around it explode. The loudest boom I ever heard was from inside the house, when lightning struck a tree 30 feet away. Had I been outside, I could have lost my hearing permanently, or at least had to live forever with a ringing in my ears. Being inside a building is the best protection against lightning and thunder. Regarding my trip to Gainesville, I turned the bike around and rode down safely the following day.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.