Lightning strike video close-up

July 13th, 2020 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

We live next to a 1,500 ft tall TV tower which frequently gets hit by lightning. We are so close, in fact, that it is difficult to get good photographs because the area just above the tower top is at an elevation angle of 70 deg. viewed from our yard, which is too steep to take pictures through a window, and for outdoor photos will cause rain to fall on the camera lens.

So, despite thousands of lightning strikes we have witnessed and heard over the years, I seldom attempt photos or video. Yesterday was one of the rare instances where the thunderstorm anvil trailing downwind of the approaching storm was sending out lightning strokes at regular, ~2 minute intervals before the rain began. This is the best time to watch the lightning for us, usually by lying down on an outdoor lounge chair and looking almost straight up.

My camera equipment was still in the car from a short trip to take photos of Comet NEOWISE the previous morning. Sensing this was a chance to capture some good video, I ran out to the car, retrieved my camera backpack and a tripod, and ran to the backyard. I set up the camera and tripod in record time, quickly adjusted the focus manually, and hit the record button.

In literally less than 1 second after pressing the record button, the best strike of the storm occurred. Here’s an animated GIF of the event… 20 video frame captures at 1/24 sec intervals (the vertical scale is exaggerated because I forced WordPress to load the full-resolution file… click on the video to see the proper perspective):

There are a lot of interesting features that I won’t go into here, except I especially like how the ionized channel breaks up into pockets of glowing air during dissipation, here’s one of the frames showing that structure:


40 Responses to “Lightning strike video close-up”

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  1. Nate says:

    Wicked cool!

  2. Marsh says:

    Nice one, Roy!

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. ClintR says:

    Fascinating photography. The lightning seemed carefree as it wandered in an almost reverse direction at one point.

    Your house is likely in the “cone of protection”, meaning close lightning will be directed to the tower, rather than protected structures. Several years ago, a tree close to my house was fried by a lightning strike.

  4. Ossqss says:

    Great video Doc.

    I recall video taping some lightning several decades ago near a lake bank and captured the lighting being emitted from the lake bank upward in frame by frame analysis. That was some enlightnening lightning as I was 50′ away from that spot. I never did that again as it litterally was a hair raising experience!

  5. Rhee says:

    Electrifying! As for me, I’m chicken of lightning, having lost some appliances and computers to lightning induced surges when I once lived in Missouri. I’ll sit back and watch your video. Thanks for posting it.

  6. gallopingcamel says:

    Awesome!

  7. Norman says:

    Glad you were able to capture the lightning strike on film and share.

  8. Dave Hogan says:

    What could have caused that reversal in the path of that first strike?
    Be neat to instrument that tower & measure current levels.

    • Gordon Robertson says:

      Dave…”What could have caused that reversal in the path of that first strike?”

      It’s possibly due to the fact that an upward streamer usually starts out from the rod before the main bolt strikes. The positive ground charge, say on the lightning rod in Roy’s photo, is very dense at the tip of the rod and it can actually form a corona discharge and leap toward the sky and that tends to initiate the main negative bolt from the clouds.

      The reversal in Roy’s photo may be due to the streamer jumping back to connect with the main bolt. However, from what I have seen of streamers they are generally very fine streams and not as thick as in Roy’s photo. The photo may not have been fast enough to capture them before the main bolt followed the streamer path down.

      At the same time as the rod is sending up a streamer the cloud can be sending down its own leader before the main strike.

      Some examples here.

      https://stormhighway.com/tower.php

  9. John says:

    Pretty cool

  10. Ethelpal says:

    10 Classic Cars They NEED to Bring Back

  11. Carguy Pete says:

    Awesome!
    I used to live on a golf course and was watching thru a window when lightening hit a loblolly pine that was on the side of a fairway. The flash was intense followed by the very loud crack of thunder. The next day I was playing the course and was able to see the tree close up. There was a channel cut into the side of the tree from top to bottom about 2 inches wide and 2 inches deep. It look as though it were cut with a router.
    Needless to say the tree died.

  12. RW says:

    Thanks for posting.

  13. Massimo PORZIO says:

    Great!
    THanks for sharing it.

  14. Gordon Robertson says:

    Might be able to get you into the electrical union for that photo. Thanks, Roy.

  15. Aaron S says:

    10 GW of energy is a sight to see.

    • Svante says:

      W is a measure of power (energy per time)!

      • Gordon Robertson says:

        svante…”W is a measure of power (energy per time)!”

        Exactly what you are seeing with that lightning bolt, bazzillions of electrons in a virtual short circuit.

        P = EI …with I very large, P is very large, as Aaron said, 10 GW. It takes a lot of power to demolish a tree as lightning does when it strikes.

  16. Eben says:

    thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me

  17. Reziac says:

    Wonderful photography! Thanks for sharing.

    I have my own weird lightning story.. I used to live in an area of frequent severe thunderstorms, in a metal-skinned trailer on a flat plain (old riverbed, so deep gravel and very high water table), among a dotting of other buildings, and with a rather large steel radio tower across the road. Did any of that ever get hit? Nope, not even the tower (far as I ever saw).

    What did repeatedly attract lightning was a shallow dip in the ground, about 200 feet behind my trailer. It would get hit bang-bang-bang during any big storm. Neighbor told me someone had buried a car there, and presumably the high water table (just below the surface) and corroding iron made an unusually attractive spot.

    Was one heck of a light show (and gloriously loud!) — normally one doesn’t think of lightning as having width, but the visible strikes appeared 3 to 6 feet in diameter at the ground.

    Unfortunately this was long before the era of affordable digital cameras.

    • Gordon Robertson says:

      reziac… “normally one doesnt think of lightning as having width, but the visible strikes appeared 3 to 6 feet in diameter at the ground”.

      When the lightning bolt current enters the Earth, it induces a voltage of several thousands of volts around it. If you happen to be standing nearby. the voltage gradient created can put several thousand volts between your legs, if they are apart. Not a nice thought.

  18. ren says:

    Sorry.
    The temperature at the North Pole has dropped.
    http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/plots/meanTarchive/meanT_2020.png

  19. ren says:

    In the Atlantic, at an altitude of 10N, 40W, a tropical storm develops, which may become a hurricane.
    https://www.tropicaltidbits.com/storminfo/

    • Gordon Robertson says:

      ren…”In the Atlantic, at an altitude of 10N, 40W, a tropical storm develops, which may become a hurricane”.

      Would not want to be rowing a boat across the Atlantic in that vicinity.

  20. THX1138 says:

    It is, after all, an Electric Universe!

  21. eyesonu says:

    I have a serious question with regards to lightening or a reduction of strike risk. As a prelude: think/remember your physics class where you stood on a wooden stool and put your hand on a glass ball containing and electrode connected to a Van de Graaff generator. The static would make your hair stand up. Place a metal cup with a pointed ‘nail’ on top and the static was drained off and then no build up of static and no hair raising experience.

    Now my question: Would driving a metal rod/pipe in the ground with say 10-20 ft. of barbed wire coiled tightly around it bleed off the potential charge before it could reach strike potential?

    I have been using this technique for years and never been struck by lightening but that doesn’t mean that it works!

  22. Dixon says:

    Brilliant! Thanks for sharing. Has anyone imaged these sort of strikes in 3D? The sudden changes of direction remind me of a random walk.

  23. Paul D says:

    Where was this taken… Huntsville? Who’s tower? WOW!

  24. Svante says:

    Test:
    <table style="width:100%"> <tr> <th>Firstname</th> <th>Lastname</th> <th>Age</th> </tr> <tr> <td>Gordon</td> <td>Robertson</td> <td>83</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Clint</td> <td>R</td> <td>94</td> </tr> </table>

  25. Roozter says:

    STUNNING‼️

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