September 28, 2023

While returning home from a family vacation during a thunderstorm near St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday, Michaelle May Whalen decided to give capturing lightning a go. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to take photos, she switched to video and struck lightning gold.

A pickup truck in front of her — driven by her husband, with her children aboard — took a powerful hit from a cloud-to-ground lightning bolt. He and the kids were fine, although the truck was reported to be “completely fried.”

Meteorologists called the video capture the “most insane” and “most incredible” close-up lightning video ever.

The lighting bolt may have consisted of a series of four strokes, or rapid electrical discharges from the cloud and the ground, tweeted lightning scientist Chris Vagasky. The first sign of its occurrence was a blinding light that caused the camera to overexpose the scene. The barrage first hit the right rear of her husband’s pickup, roughly several car lengths in front of the camera.

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A heartbeat later, Whalen can be heard reacting with a scream, followed by an important question: “Is he okay?”

Her husband and children were unharmed as the steel-framed vehicle acted as a “faraday cage,” in which the current of the lightning bolt goes around the metal body and typically exits to the ground from the tires. The strike will avoid people as long as everyone is inside the vehicle and not touching the outside metal. This is also a reason aircraft are often struck by lightning without major damage.

Concurrently with the first flash, a bright orange sheath surrounds the spot where it connects with the truck as sparks erupt in all directions.

In less than a blink of an eye, two more rapid-fire flashes are seen, as is smoke rising from the impact location. Vagasky believes the smoke was caused from the first stroke.

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“When lightning strikes it sends thousands of amps of current and extreme heat into an object in just microseconds, causing explosive expansion,” Vagasky said in a message.

The final flash — announced by an explosion ripping through the air — happens as the viewer’s vehicle surges forward into the lightning’s path. Another burst of sparks is seen, along with additional orange flame.

While the lightning appears relatively straight from even a short distance, the video shows a stroke with many small zigzags and loops — a plasma channel. Eventually, the channel dissipates in pieces.

Plasma is a result of lightning, formed when air molecules are split into their atoms. At that moment, plasma can be as hot as 50,000 degrees, or about five times hotter than the sun.

“The lightning channel is more of a plasma, and that’s what we see right in front of the camera at the end of the video,” said Vagasky.

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