Have respect for lightning
August 27, 2007
Of all of Mother Nature’s natural phenomena one of the least understood, by the general public, is the electrical display we all know as lightning.
The danger inherent in a lightning strike has never been fully understood and appreciated by much of the general public. As evidenced by the number of golfers and others engaged in outdoor activities taking refuge under trees during thunderstorms, with catastrophic results. As a boy growing up on a Colorado ranch, my own acquaintanceship with lightning began at an early age.
In those days, we did most of our summer haying with teams of horses. Starting at about the age of nine, one of my responsibilities was raking hay with a John Deere 12-foot sulky rake and a team consisting of one draft horse in harness with a mule. (This was due to my father’s belief widely held by many to this day, that mules are smarter than horses and much less likely to willingly participate in a runaway accident).
During the course of a typical summer day, thunderstorms would arise and from a distance were quite beautiful for what they portended in our semi-arid Colorado. The closer the clouds approached however, the more worrisome they became particularly if one was some distance away from the refuge of the home building. Horses can be most skittish around lightning!
Looking back, we occasionally would underestimate the timing of the approaching thunderstorm and would be forced to head home with the rain (or hail) pelting us, and with the team at a full gallop. There we were, sitting upright on a beautifully grounded steel wheel implement on a wet dirt road surface. With lightning popping around us, what a perfect target we were!
Fortunately, none of our family was directly struck by lightning, but the realization of the high potential for that to have happened, as it did to many rural folk over the years, is scary to think about to this day.
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Later, when I became a practicing veterinarian in central eastern Colorado, one of my summertime activities was to investigate on behalf of insurance companies, the cause of death of insured animals to determine whether or not lightning was responsible. This brought out a series of the most interesting situations imaginable, running the gamut from astounding tricks of nature to rarely (thankfully) resourceful attempts by livestock owners to disguise the real cause of death.
The utilization of steel fence post in range fence lines is a comparatively recent development in livestock pasture management. Prior to their usage, lightning could strike a fence line composed solely of wooden posts and be carried through the barbed wire for potentially hundreds of yards because the electrical current was not grounded out.
I had found during a number of investigation, that cattle had been electrocuted while their heads poked between the wires of the fence line, while evidence of a fresh lightning strike could be found a considerable distance away. Adding an occasional steel post to wooden post fence line would have minimized the possibility of that happening.
Another commonly observed lightning-related phenomenon would be the mass electrocution or cattle drinking from a stock tank, where the supplying windmill would have been hit by lightning. The current would flow down the usually steel windmill tower, through the water into the tank, and then through the water again into the cattle, killing all of those a the tank, some with their heads still in the tank.
Confirmatory evidence of death by lightning was sometimes difficult, particularly if the animal had been dead for several days. Decomposition in animals comes rapidly on hot summer days, and it becomes virtually impossible to have a diagnostic post-mortem exam for lightning (or any other cause of death) under these circumstances.
Sometimes however, diagnosis is very self-evident with characteristic changes to the hide, eyes, bone structure and internal organs. Suddenness of death with grass still in the animal’s mouth can also be a tipp-off.
On very, very rare occasions a livestock owner, knowing that singed hair is suggestive of lightning deaths, would break out this old blow torch and scorch the hide. One event I recall, having heard that lighting creates a tree like scorch pattern down the lets into the ground, the individual torched the hide but got the pattern upside-down! Other stories of such chicanery abound.
All of the events of livestock and human deaths due to lightning should remind everyone to never take the dangers inherent in the approach of thunderstorm lightly. Take proper precautions to protect yourself and your family!