I noticed in the news recently that there seems to be a move away from denying climate change or global warming. It looks like people are finally waking up to the fact that we humans are contributing to a situation that is causing change in the climate and weather patterns. Sadly, we have wasted a lot of time and missed a lot of opportunities to do our part to fight global warming. People seem to be coming out of denial now because the changes in weather patterns are just too obvious to ignore.
For example, consider the widespread drought of the United States and large parts of Canada. I notice in my immediate environment the changes that are happening. There has been much rain and terrible storms in the northern wilderness where I am spending the summer.
A few days ago, I experienced the most intense thunder-and-lightning storm ever in my life. There were a series of storms in my area and the worst awoke me at about three in the morning. This storm was terrifying as the lightning and thunder flashed repeatedly like a strobe light for over an hour. I felt as though I were in the heart of this great storm.
Native people have always been in awe of the force of thunder and lightning. I was raised to respect these powerful forces on the land. My Elders told me of a Cree mythology of the origins of thunder and lightning. Even though we lived in the flat lands of the western James Bay mushkeg, there were stories and legends of high mountains in the west that rose up and met the sky. My people believed that these high places was where lightning and thunder originated and these phenomenon were thought of as living entities that travelled with the storms and clouds. They came in different sizes, shapes and intensities so people pointed out the small young ones that briefly flashed or the great old ones that came down as powerful lightning bolts.
In our language lightning is known as Ominiskoo. It is the origin of more modern words we use to describe anything having to do with electricity. Batteries of any sort are referred to as Ominiskoo and electrical wires are known as Ominiskoo-Api.
Scientifically, lightning is actually a very powerful force. A lightning bolt has an average peak-power output of about one trillion watts, or one terawatt, and the strike lasts only 30 millionths of a second or 30 microseconds. At this energy output, the lightning heats the surrounding air in its immediate vicinity to about 20,000 degrees Celsius or 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about three times the temperature of the surface of the sun. The sudden heating from a lightning bolt super heats the surrounding air and creates a supersonic shock wave. This shock wave is what we hear as thunder.
Tall trees are conductors of lightning because they are often the highest point in the landscape. However, the sap inside trees is a poor conductor of electricity so when lightning strikes a tall pine, the sap is instantly superheated into steam and explodes. Lightning striking trees is often the source of forest fires in many remote forested areas.
You can judge the distance of a lightning strike by counting how many seconds it takes for the sound of thunder to follow a flash of light. It is estimated that a flash preceding thunder for three seconds is about one kilometre away. Or for a mile, it’s five seconds.
There isn’t much you can do to avoid the power of these huge thunderstorms that are becoming more regular in parts of the country. Scientists tell us that as weather patterns change due to global warming we can expect more volatile and violent weather.
Don’t ever take shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm and try not to get caught out in the open on a lake, river or flat area. The safest places are inside a vehicle or a building.
The fact is that the recent thunderstorm I experienced really scared me. After all, I was surrounded by tall pine and poplar trees in the wilderness. I guess I am just going to have to get accustomed to bigger and more violent thunderstorms and that is not going to be easy.