Update: This story was edited on April 18, 2019 to include some more video embedded below.
The hills were alive with the sound of electricity for young Bugs Crocker in the Front Range Chugach Mountains on Sunday.
Oh has it ever, but there are some questions as to what it means. The sound itself is due to static electricity flying between Crocker’s hand and head. Some on the hiking page were quick to warn of the danger of a lightning strike given all the electricity in the air, but there were no visible lightning strikes reported in the Chugach on Sunday.
The experts, meanwhile, aren’t sure exactly what to think, although all warn that the best idea is probably to avoid any risk and get off the mountain in a “static storm” like this.
Crocker noted that “as soon as we were below summit, the buzzing stopped. Wish I’d known what it was before it happened. Not a whole lot of literature on it.”
An emergency department technician at Providence Alaska Medical Center, Crocker is trained to search the literature, but there truly isn’t all that much on this phenomenon. There is, however, some.
Could be dead
“Two Yukoners who had a close call with an electrical storm say they didn’t realize the danger at the time,” the CBC reported in 2015. “After returning home, (sheep hunter Aeden) Greer called Environment Canada and described what happened. He says a meteorologist described the experience as a close call.
“‘He told me that (the buzzing) is the last sound you’d hear before getting struck by lightning. It’s unbelievable. I feel pretty lucky because — what’s the reason we didn’t get struck? It’s amazing.'”
The reason might be that a fair number of people over the years have reported being in these static storms without being struck. Consider this from the late Robert Sterling Yard’s 1919 guide to “Mountaineering in the Rocky Mountain National Park:”
“One occasionally encounters a so-called static storm. In this phenomenon, there are no lightning flashes, but the presence of electricity is manifested by snapping sounds in the air, tiny blue flashes between the rocks, crackling in one’s hair, which involuntarily stands on end, and if one’s finger is pointed upward small flashes may emanate from it. This static electricity is not dangerous unless an approaching storm indicates that genuine lightning is to follow.”
How exactly one is supposed to know if a storm is approaching when caught in a cloud, as Crocker was, was not explained. And the storm doesn’t always need to be close to get you.
at iWeatherNet.com reports witnessing “a nearby lightning strike with startling thunder that emanated from the anvil of a thunderstorm that was 130 miles away. I have scanned the formal literature and a common upper-limit is about 124 miles.”
Such lightning strikes would be the proverbial “bolt from the blue.” What Crocker experienced is something more a kin to St. Elmo’s Fire, a glow of air molecules inside an iconic plasma caused by a lot of static electricity in the air.
Cottage Life, a Canadian magazine, has a video of light flowing from the tip of a Midwestern man’s finger after he walked into such a static storm.
“Based on this unusual video, filmed on Wisconsin’s Lake Monona, if the conditions are just right, you get St. Elmo’s Fire. Not to be confused with the 1980s coming-of-age film, St. Elmo’s Fire is an eerie electrical phenomenon that’s often confused for lightning.”
Except St. Elmo’s fire is sort of lighting. The big difference is that instead of the ionized air from a highly charged cloud discharging to the ground in a flashing bolt, the ions dance around in an effort to release energy by moving from areas of high potential to low.
As anyone whose ever charged themselves up with static electricity knows, if you concentrate those ions on your finger you can get a mini-lightning bolt to jump between your fingertip and a ground, or apparently whistle around in space between your hand and your head.
So exactly how much danger are you in if you find yourself in a situation like that of Crocker?
It’s hard to tell. Consider some of the statements made about Electric Pass in Colorado.
The included photo of Ty shows his hair charged by static electricity standing on end. Neither Roy nor Tyler was hit by lightning, but they did take the electricity as a good excuse to promptly abandon the pass.
“Electric Pass was given it’s obvious and ominous name by an unlucky ranger in the 1920s who was knocked to the ground at the summit three times in a row by static electricity. He apparently literally rolled down the mountain to safety,” writes Annie Yearout who blogs as Outdoorsy Mama.
That story could not be independently confirmed, and Yearout did not respond to a request for a source. But her blog isn’t the only place Electric Pass comes up discussed in this way.
“Electric Pass is named for the static electricity that apparently makes people’s hair stand up when they are up there,” says Summit Post, a website for peak baggers. And there’s a whole thread on Google that features people, a fair number of them climbers, debating the risks of being caught in a static storm.
Lightning is not a good thing with which to gamble. On average, 49 people per year are killed in the U.S. with hundreds more injured, according to the National Weather Service.
The agency’s one-time “Dr. Lightning” – John Jensenius – suggested in a telephone interview that if the temperature on the O’Malley ridge was in the mid- to low-30s, as Crocker believes it was, the risk of lightning was likely low.
In such temperatures, he said, “I would guess that you can get (lightning). It might be infrequent.”
Jensenius is now retired and living in Maine. He said lightning sometimes occurs there in winter “associated with graupel.” Graupel is a something of a cross between hail and snow. The National Severe Storms Laboratory describes it as a “soft, small pellet of ice created when supercooled water droplets coat a snowflake.”
At the temperatures under discussion, Jensenius said, “I would say it is possible. (But) it’s not very likely.”
That said, he pondered the obvious: why take the risk?
“I’d certainly consider it dangerous,” he said.
National records going back to the 1950s, he added, record no lightning deaths in Alaska, although people have been hit. But who would want to be the first to die?
Thunderheads, which produce lightning, did appear to be developing over the Chugach on Sunday when the temperature hit an unseasonable 51 degrees, only 3 degrees shy of the record high for the date.
Combined with a hot sun shining on the south facing O’Malley ridge, the temperatures likely would have been setting up the static-electricity-building conditions described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
“Clouds become electrified when strong updrafts (fueled by instability and moisture) bring supercooled liquid water drops and ice crystals at temperatures less than freezing (32 degrees) together. In this environment, interactions between the ice crystals and supercooled water droplets produce electric charges. The exact mechanisms by which this charging happens remain unknown. The electrical charges build up until they are strong enough to overcome the resistance of the surrounding air. The breakdown of the electric fields produced by these charges is the lightning bolt.”
And if they aren’t strong enough to overcome the resistance of the surrounding air and fire off some bolts, they can still be strong enough to entertain Alaskans.