Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Jersey Boomer

A distant rumbling felt as much with the stomach as heard through the ears. Then, the same sound, slightly closer and louder. A bluish flash at the window. The rumbles become sticks of dynamite exploding as they fall from the sky directly overhead. Walls and furniture appear and disappear like apparitions. Rain, wind, rattling windows.

Summer thunderstorms in Jersey have extroverted personalities. They can’t be ignored. They gather over the Pocono Mountains for strategy conferences. They can be very selective in their targets, skipping one town while reducing the next to wet heap of broken branches. Our thunderstorms are cantankerous, knocking a tree down here, blasting a hole in a roof there, setting off security alarms, making lights flicker. Mostly, they just scare children, dogs and superstitious grandmothers.

My gramma Nana believed one of those fierce, jagged bolts of lightning had her name engraved on it. She would shut off every appliance, retreat to her room, light a holy candle and sit on the edge of her bed mouthing prayers until the storm passed. Our nervous dog Susie, recognizing a fellow coward, hid under her bed.

My mom, a cool cookie, could get out of bed in the middle of the night, gauge wind direction, shut every window on that side of the house and return to bed without turning on a single light or tripping over anything.

The romance went out of thunderstorms for awhile after I took a basic college course in meteorology. A teaspoon of knowledge turned them into big machines, and I observed them analytically rather than with mystical awe.

The typical late afternoon or evening Jersey boomer takes shape over middle Pennsylvania, where warm, moist air rises in an updraft, creating fluffy cumulus clouds. Some clouds continue to rise until the water condenses as raindrops or hail. This creates a downdraft of cool air that accompanies or precedes a thunderstorm. A thunderstorm cell lasts only about 20 minutes, but they renew themselves by moving toward fresh sources of warm air, like over my house.

They are capricious beings. As a kid, I saw a small bolt of lightning reach through the branches of several tall trees to punch a hole in the corner of the garage, no fire, just wisps of ghostly steam & smoke. So much for striking the highest object. A few years ago, a violent thunderstorm cut a damaging path through part of Union County, ending in Rahway River Park. Most people thought it was a tornado, National Weather Service disagreed; what probably occurred was a microburst, an intense downdraft of air and rain that can produce winds of 100 miles per hour.

What is particularly frightening about thunderstorms is that the negative electrical charge in the base of thundercloud can induce a positive charge on the ground for several miles around, which means you don’t have to be standing in the storm to get zapped. It could come as a great surprise while admiring that pretty rainbow.

There are occasions when the sky breaks a certain way to reveal, rising thousands of feet above the lower rain clouds, a cloud so towering that high altitude winds flatten its top into an anvil shape, the classic cumulonimbus cloud. Great air turbulence & hailstones reign within its soft billows. These clouds are sometimes seen in their full beauty where there is a far horizon, like in western Jersey or over Raritan Bay, or a mall. They deserve holy candles, especially when they cool the air at the end of a hot, humid day, leaving a sliver of orange moon in the summer sky.

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