I don’t remember the exact year – 1983 or 1984 –, which seems like a geologic era-ago, when I was a seasonal ranger at Natural Bridges National Monument in the heart of the Cedar Mesa. Part of my job was to monitor the daily build up of thunderstorms that piled up over the Bears Ears and Woodenshoe Butte. I monitored the daily routine of the clouds: drift in from the southwest, congregate above the flat-topped mesas and pine studded woodlands, build and boil until the clouds were the size of Eastern states, drift back over White and Armstrong Canyon, let forth a deluge.
OK, it wasn’t in my real job description, but I made it part of the day. Take notice and bear witness. Sometimes, I wish I still had that job.
Many days were like Thursday night poker games – a lot of huffing and bluffing. The cumulus would turn to thermocumulus and then to nucleocumulus…. see what I mean about the huffing? When the clouds were dealt you’d brace for that first clap of thunder, that first streak of lightning, the first puff of burning juniper. Some rounds, the cloud Kachinas would be bluffing, holding their cards close to their chests and the clouds would simply fold and disperse without a whimper.
Oh, but there were days when the thunder would roll down off the cliffs and canyons and rattle the windows in the visitor center. There were days when the lightning seemed to whip about the mesas like a fly fisherman’s line, before snapping to the ground and causing the ground to jump. There were days when the rains fell so hard you could see dimples in the pavement and hear the flooding in White Canyon from miles away. Those days were Royal flushes as the placid stream would turn into a torrent. The stream would run Cedar Mesa red and, depending upon the intensity of the flood, deposit debris high up on the embankments or maybe in the lower limbs of the cottonwoods.
Out along the loop road you could only guess what the visitors were up to. Some thought it amusing to stand out on metal promontories overlooking the canyons as the air crackled with static and curtains of rain hung from the clouds. Later on, we’d find the park’s wooden signs split in half so that they would read, “Stand here during an electrical storm.” Of course, some half-baked idiot had severed the “DO NOT” portion of the sign. And try as they might, I don’t remember anyone getting zapped by the canyon gods. Of course, it could have happened on one of my off days. I can picture someone calmly shouting to their spouse, “Honey, don’t run. See the sign? We’re OK!” BEZAP.
All kidding aside, summer thunderstorms posses an amazing array of power and grandeur. So what is one to do if the proverbial ‘lightning strikes?’
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 the storm and in potential danger.
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 in your lifetime 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. Avoid exposed high points, trees, tall poles, or being in the water. Though lightning can strike the same spot twice, tall buildings or monuments are most often these repeat targets.
Yet for all the intensity, a thunderstorm sweeping across the desert landscape or lighting up the night sky is an awesome thing of beauty. Be safe and be alert, and keep an ear open for the sound of rushing water.