Condemning one more piece of folk wisdom to the dustbin, a team of federal researchers has found that lightning strikes twice in the same place. Not only that, but in some particularly lightning-prone areas -- such as this small town south of Denver on the eastern fringe of the Rockies -- bolts from the blue are fairly predictable.
A new study by Dr. Raul Lopez and Dr. Ronald Holle, meteorologists at the Commerce Department's Environmental Research Laboratories in Boulder, concludes that there is a pattern of lightning strikes each summer in Castle Rock and the surrounding terrain.
Holle said the study found a similar pattern of "high lightning flash counts" along the east and west coasts of Florida. He suggested that further research might uncover similar lightning zones in Texas and the midwestern plains.
The new research shows that lightning is not always a chance event triggered by some whim of Mother Nature, as popular lore suggests. Instead, geography seems to play a large role in how many lightning bolts strike a particular spot, Holle said. He said "mountain effects and wind-flow patterns" tend to draw electric storms to Castle Rock, a town named for a famous rock formation that looks more like a swollen thumb than a castle.
This town is 6,200 feet above sea level. To the east, broad, flat plains stretch toward Kansas; west of town, the Rocky Mountains climb to levels of 10,000 feet and more.
Holle theorizes that electrical storms settle in this midpoint between mountain and plain. As a result, the study says, certain square miles here can be hit by lightning more than 25 times each summer.
The Florida lightning zones, Holle said, come in areas where there is a convex coastline -- one that bulges outward -- along the ocean. For example, the area between Cape Canaveral and Daytona Beach is a high-flash zone, he said, as are areas with convex coastlines all along the Gulf Coast.
The research used a rapidly growing body of lightning data provided by a new mapping system that tracks each lightning bolt hitting the ground. These systems are deployed by government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and by private operations, such as television weather forecasters, to help predict the path of violent storms.
The mapping technology is less than a decade old, Holle said, but already nearly two-thirds of the United States is covered.
Although the news that lightning is predictable, rather than random, may come as a blow to poets and songwriters, Holle thinks the new research into lightning patterns can have useful applications. "Computer manufacturers are very sensitive to power interruptions which occur as a result of lightning," he said. "If they knew that a particular location gets lightning flashes at a certain, regular time of day, they could alter their operations to avoid the power problems."
Accurate prediction could also be a public-health boon. Hundreds of Americans are struck by lightning each summer, and more than 200 are killed each year by the bolts -- more deaths than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined cause in the average year.
According to figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lightning inflicted fewer fatalities than average last year for the 10th consecutive year. The average is 106 deaths a year; in 1984 the number killed was 67, with 253 injuries.
Weather experts say the best rule for someone outdoors during a lightning storm is to lie low -- the lightning will strike the tallest object in its path -- and to stay away from isolated trees or towers that might be hit. But the best advice of all is to stay inside if a lightning storm is likely.
Holle said the new research could help golfers, hikers and other outdoor types plan their activities to avoid the bolts. But it is not always clear that people will do so. The Professional Golfers' Association has recently completed a major new course that is expected to be the home of a major tournament each summer, drawing thousands of people out to watch.
The location of the new course? Castle Rock.