It is still the rainy season here and we are treated or subjected to (depending on where you are at the time) thunder storms with frightening regularity. The sky darkens, the heavens open up and within seconds the ground is flooded, the sky pulses with light and low rumbles inch their way under my skin to the base of my stomach. Actually I love a good thunder storm...usually.....
Thunder and lightning are not rare phenomena in most parts of the world.
During every minute of any given 24 hour day there are about 1800 thunder storms unleashing their power somewhere on our world. According to USA Today, lightning strikes the ground 100 times every second with up to 200 million volts of potentially destructive energy. Although it’s not all bad. Lightning, which is essentially just a humungous static discharge, produces more than half the usable, life giving nitrogen in our atmosphere and (for those gardeners out there) in our soil too. In fact it is thought that Nitrogen could have been the prehistoric energy source that fuelled the formation of early organic compounds that eventually led to life. Creates images of the ‘big thunder clap’ instead of the ‘big bang’ doesn’t it?
In Samoa we had a close encounter with a thunder clap so loud I swear time stood still. The accompanying bolt of electricity came down through our phone lines and instantly fried the modem on our computer. Our house was unearthed so at the first sign of thunder I had unplugged everything from the power, who knew it would chose the phone lines instead! It stole 3 years of precious photos, stored on the hard drive because the internet was too slow to upload successfully and I still grieve. I am obsessed with making sure I upload any new photos onto the internet where I am hoping they will remain stored wherever we may be.
The aftermath from our 19th floor balcony in Singapore
Singapore has an average of 171 thunderstorm days a year and one of the highest rates of lightning activity in the world. From our 19th floor apartment we often watched thick dirty gray rain clouds roll over our floor to ceiling view of the city unleashing great torrents of water and colossal bolts of light from their depths often so close you could smell the ozone (so named from ‘ozein’ the Greek word for smell due to its odour during a lightning storm) which smells a little like sun dried bed sheets to me.
Singapore being Singapore has taken precautions to mitigate the danger posed to its citizens during strikes. The meteorological office monitors all thunder storms within a 250 kilometre radius of the ‘island’ with an ‘advanced lightning detection and tracking system’. Most outdoor sports fields are closed during downpours and condominium guards move quickly to evacuate swimming pools at the first sign of rain. All of Singapore’s tall buildings have ‘lightning rods’ which attract the bolts and ‘earth’ the buildings by providing the electricity the path of least resistance to the ground. There are also masts, ‘lightning stroke interceptors’, which work in much the same way, in areas where there are few buildings like the airport.
Consequently there is only an average of 0.35 deaths per million a year or about 1 and a half people.
Sorry my camera isn't good enough for this to have been mine! It's from www.superstock.com
Cambodia, like Singapore, is also prone to thunder storms but unlike its regional neighbour it has not taken many (if any) precautions despite the recent burst in the construction of tall buildings and the largely rural and so exposed population. People although acutely aware of the potentially fatal danger of lightning are largely uninformed about the possible safety measures they could be taking. Many Cambodians still believe a little mistletoe and a magic charm can help ward off the dreaded bolts of electricity as they work their level, flooded rice paddies and victims are often shamed as having bought it on themselves due to their ‘bad karma’ if they are lucky enough to have survived.
The idea that mistletoe has protective properties over lightning is not just a Khmer one. It was shared by the Europeans. Pliny the Elder (77 AD) wrote that Mistletoe, eggs and vinegar could be used to put out fire. In Sweden, Norway, France, England and Germany, this ancient Italian custom survived until the end of the nineteenth century. In France people threw mistletoe berries in the fire when it thundered. In Germany and Switzerland there was the belief that trees on which Mistletoe grew were not struck by lightning. Since the plant itself was seen as the product of lightning, the consequence of arguments between witches or evil spirits, it was also able to keep lightning away. In Devon it was believed that a hung sprig of Mistletoe kept after Christmas could protect the house from being struck all year.
Universally Lightning is often seen as a sign of divine wrath, power or a fertilizing potency as it is linked with both fire and water, creation and destruction and it is regarded with a mixture of fear and reverence.
In China, thunder and lightning are regarded as the visitation of an angry or offended god. Similar to old English beliefs, it is supposed that people are struck by thunder and not by lightning (as in ‘thunderstruck’) and that death by thunder is a punishment for some secret crime committed against another human or a divine law. The Goddess of Lightning uses her mirror illuminating the offender so the God of Thunder can in turn can strike his victim with a deafening clap. In a similar vein an English friend once told me as a child he believed lightning came from an angels camera flash as she was taking evidential photos of naughty deeds, for whom he didn’t say... Santa perhaps?
It’s not only cultural myths about thunder and lightning that connect us to our past and to each other. The Japanese word for thunder is kaminari, which literally means ‘gods resounding’. It conjures up similar images to the idea thunder rumbles are the sound of angels bowling or playing the drums or arguing or fighting (depending on how you were bought up!).
The Japanese Kanji character for kaminari (雷) is ‘rain’ over a ‘rice field’ which shows the significance of thunder in its connection to the coming of rain and the watering of the fields and also since a thunderstorm brings lightning the probable injection of nitrogen into the soil which is further enforced with the Kanji character for lightning, Inazuma (稲妻), which means ‘rice plant’s wife’. Lightning, with its nitrogen giving properties, and rice, a vital staple in all Asian cultures, vital life partners.
There are many myths surrounding lightning too. Here are a few common ones.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice- Actually lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall pointy isolated object. The Empire State Building used to be used as a lightning laboratory, since it is hit nearly 25 times a year.
Standing under a tree is safe- Sadly many people believe this one. Sheltering beneath trees is the second leading activity for lightning casualties – enough said?!
Inside a house is safe- It’s a good start as long as you remember to stay away from anything that plugs into the wall. Just recently I read a news article about a boy who ended up in hospital after his television (which he was watching at the time) was struck by lightning. Plumbing, including plastic pipes with water in them, has also been known to conduct lightning’s electricity.
If it’s not raining, or if clouds aren’t overhead, I’m safe from lightning- Lightning can and often does strike miles from the thunderstorm clouds or rain ‘Bolts From The Blue’, though infrequent (as the saying suggests), can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm. Lightning that comes out of a storm at an angle, called Anvil lightning, can strike over 50 Miles from the thunderstorm.
If trapped outside lie flat on the ground- Dont! This only increases your surface area and therefore your chances of being hit plus since lightning often travels along the ground your entire body would be effected if you were to get hit. Better advice is to use the ‘Lightning Crouch’, feet together, squat low, tuck your head, and cover your ears.
According to official statistics (in the ‘Cambodia Daily’ newspaper) more than 80 people have died from lightning strikes in Cambodia so far this year. That’s more than have been killed by landmines in a country considered to be the second most heavily mined in the world. It is not only farmers that get killed. Sometimes it’s people playing sport. Several weeks ago a young girl was sheltering from a sudden storm under a tree in front of the Royal Palace when the tree was hit. She died instantly.
The thing is it would be a relatively simple statistic to modify. The Director of the Cambodian Meteorology Department, Long Savuth, said, in the Cambodia Daily, that a ‘lack of funding and plain ignorance was a problem’.
Last year the department found funds to print only 8,000 copies of a leaflet educating farmers about lightning dangers, but then discovered it lacked the money to distribute them.
By comparison, aggressive landmine awareness campaigns by the government and international aid groups mean few Khmers are ignorant of that danger.
'If someone is struck by lightning, people believe covering them with a white cloth will cure them. Of course CPR would be better, but nobody knows how to do it or even what it is,' Savuth said. 'Everyone thinks about landmines. Few donors think about lightning’.
A perennial problem in Cambodia it seems (see Dengue post). Maybe donors would do better to ask the Cambodians what needs funding instead of plying more money on projects already heavily funded.