Florida may be the Sunshine State, but make no mistake, it’s also the lightning capital of the United States.
A lucky police officer in Apopka, Fla., came face to face with that fact Tuesday afternoon when lightning struck less than 100 yards away. Footage from a building’s security camera captured the officer getting out of his vehicle, then diving back in as an explosion happens behind him.
The surveillance video reveals a plethora of remarkable phenomena associated with a close-range lightning strike, few of which are observed.
The first lightning that appears, in the upper right of the video frame, is the branchlike form called crawlers. They spider out along the base of a cloud, and this one probably began far from the parking lot.
Then the cloud-to-ground strike happens. The first step is a “downward streamer,” a bolt of electricity that races down from the sky. It takes a fraction of a second to reach the ground, but in that time there are two camera frames — that’s why first, the bright flash appears overhead, and then the entire camera shot is illuminated, blinded by the bolt.
You can tell it was a close strike because of the faint crackle or pop heard on the video. A nearby lightning strike alters the electric field and exerts a force on electricity within a building’s wiring. Subsequently, the power supply to the camera was probably tripped up, resulting in visible digital issues.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the bolt struck, but it was most likely somewhere behind the lonely palm tree on the left of the image. A few frames of pure brightness follow — return strokes, or bursts of lightning that propagate through the channel that connects the cloud to the ground.
As the lightning begins to decay, it breaks into small beads of warm plasma for a few seconds. This can be seen quite well on the top right portion of the image.
Then comes the really wacky part — the explosion.
It may be a transformer blowing, which is common in lightning storms. The explosion starts off blue, typical of power flashes, then quickly turns orange.
It could also be what’s referred to as ball lightning. On occasion, lightning can interact with metal and silicates in the ground and create a natural explosion of light immediately after the strike.
The lightning probably overwhelmed the power grid locally, creating such a surge that it blew a transformer and briefly produced that ball of flame. The self-contained orb of fire floats upward (since it is super warm and therefore less dense) before disappearing suddenly. The color of the smoke is commensurate with burning metal, too.
Although a power flash is the most likely explanation, it’s impossible to say for sure going solely by the video. There does not appear to be any flame left behind, as there would be if the lightning sparked a utility fire, nor are there sparks or pulses of light after the initial event. Those would be typical collateral effects of a transformer blowing, and yet we’re not really seeing them here.
In either case, this represents a fascinating example of cloud-to-ground lightning — and a close call for this police officer.