Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lightning Storms in Chicago

One of the most impressive things about living in Chicago is witnessing the thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are a fairly routine event during the summer, and they have a tendency to arrive on time around 4:30 in the afternoon (right when most of us have to get home from work, actually), although they can come at other times. Storms tend to be quick and powerful, but sometimes we can get multicell storms the last for hours.

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Growing up in Vermont lightning storms were far less common, and were of a far more mellow variety, although my family tended to treat them with respect. I remember watching the approaching storms on the weather channel, and then helping my mom and dad unplug all the television sets and major electronic items. Then we would occasionally stay up late with the lights off waiting to see a flash or two on the horizon.

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Now that I think about it I suppose I have witnessed some impressive thunderstorms of the East Coast variety. For instance, I remember sitting in an apartment on a high floor in a high-rise in Pittsburgh when lightning went past horizontally and even in an upwards direction. When I was in grade school I wrote an essay on a storm I saw from a sailboat. The storm was perfectly in synch with a priest singing Latin words to Pachelbel's Canon, making for an amazing effect. Then there was a time when I was in a tent on the top of a hill in a lightning storm and I got to witness a tree fall not twenty feet away. I suppose if it fell the other way I might not be here. In a more reflective fashion, I remember watching thunderstorms out on the bay in Provincetown from my bedroom windows. The open bay meant you could see bolts many miles out in the distance.

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Well, none of these storms compare even remotely to what Chicago can dish out in a typical summer. There is even a whole new vocabulary that an East Coaster has to learn full of terms like "microbursts," "downbursts," "mesocyclones," "supercells with rotation" -- and it is in Chicago that I first got in the habit of checking the NOAA severe weather alerts, and it's also where I heard my first real tornado siren. Midwestern storms are far more serious than anything I've seen on the East Coast, although it's true that someone from Arkansas or northern Indiana might think I've seen nothing yet.

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But even what Chicago can dish out can be pretty impressive. A case in point: earlier this week, a series of thunderstorms went through Chicago and left 300,000 people in the surrounding areas without power. They were accompanied by tornado warnings with even a few touchdowns. And here's the best indicator I could come up with: I got to see the Sears Tower get hit by over twenty thunderbolts in a little over an hour, occurring for the most part at regular one and a half to two minute intervals! The rhythm was so regular that I was able to predict the next bolt with a high degree of accuracy, and hence I was able to catch the bolts on film. Some of the strikes were more impressive than others. Unfortunately, I missed the most impressive hits: at least two or three times when a bolt hit the Sears Tower it was followed by a shower of sparks all throughout the surrounding area. I'll have to leave that effect to your imagination.

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Recording lightning bolts on film was also a very interesting experience, since it disclosed a far more complicated phenomenon than what I saw with my naked eye. or instance, on film, a single bolt reveals itself to have been a complicated series of bolts all directed at the same place. And one can see that a single bolt often has different power levels throughout the striking process.

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Well, it was quite a storm, and I had the perfect view point to witness it. Hence, in this post I can offer you some highlights of the show. All these photographs represent a "single" hit on the Sears Tower in the actual order of the sequence. I also have three film clips. The first one is in real time so you can listen to the boom of the thunder afterwards. The second two have been slowed down slightly so you can appreciate the complexity of the event.

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People often compare Chicago to New York. I suppose it comes with the territory of still claiming to be "second city." But there are a few things that Chicago does better than New York, and one of these has got to be the lightning storms. Although I suppose for some people that might make it worse?


Regardless, enjoy the clips from a safe distance!

Slow Motion Lightning Strike

Slow Motion Cloud to Cloud Lightning


  1. Hey John,
    Enjoyed the pictures and the quotes. Thursdays aren't what they used to be, but what is these days?
    Hope you're having a great time, being paid tons of money and are having cheese. I won't be, although Chris is on vacation this coming week.
    Missing you around the place!

  2. it's a spectacular event! Honesty, I'm afraid of lightning! with custom essay I got to know a lot of facts about it!