Another Life: The nuts and volts of thunder storms
Do we need to know more about them as climate changes?
The thundercloud: something we could learn to dread. Illustration: Michael Viney
The stately advance of clouds from the ocean, and their enfolding cloudscapes in the sky, are part of the entertainment of life on the Atlantic fringe. At both ends of the day their sculpting by the sun and the astonishing, often voluptuous colours of their light – these the more intense and theatrical in the raking declinations of winter – help to make up for the periodic Sturm und Drang of the new climatic regime. It has made us passingly knowledgeable about kinds of clouds – cirrus, stratus, cumulus – if not all their permutations into altocumulus stratiformes (good for sunsets), nimbostratus (bad for snow) and so on.
One shape, however, we could well learn to dread: the piled up, darkening coiffure of Cumulonimbus capillatus, the towering thundercloud. Seen on the ocean horizon as a safely distant, anvil-headed blob of grey, or a looming flotilla thereof, one can raise a wet finger to the wind and guess at the odds. A midnight flash through the bedroom curtains has us counting five seconds to the mile as the thunderclap rolls to our ears, a ritual we are now unlikely to refine into kilometres.
But sometimes, as in the last parade of storms, a scattered thunderhead creeps up without an early rumble of warning, to discharge a sudden flash-bang to a handy hillside transformer. In that instant Ethna drew a brilliant blue arc from a light switch like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, much to her discomposure. She needed a hug and a large slug of sherry as the hail shower lashed at the windows.
It was this sort of shock that once made our beloved postmistress shy away from her switchboard and decline to plug anybody through until the sky cleared again. A friend at the foot of the mountain had her telephone blown off the wall by a lightning strike. And once a man walking the shore at Bunlach had lightning strike a brass collar stud at the back of his neck and was left with a little round burn to prove it once he’d picked himself up – or so the story goes.
Townland lore also offers the thunderbolt that tore through one thick wall of a house and out the other, tossing showers of slates in the air as it went.
Even without a direct hit on the house a lightning strike to rural power points unleashes some wicked amperes of mischief. Our desk computers are buffered by surge-absorbing batteries, but broadband systems can be vulnerable.