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Claims, myths hold that thunderstorms kill humans and animals unnaturally but how true?

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CLAIM: Thunderstorm is often sent to destroy a person, animal, or thing unnaturally. It serves as vengeance or sanction for a wrong deed.

Thunderstorm is scientific. This is because science assumes the reality of its matters to minimise critical metaphysical attitude.

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Belief about havoc wreaked by thunderstorms comes in two ways; sometimes mentioned to be a natural occurrence of strikes and other times, deep-rooted myth in some cultures.

In the early 20th century, many researchers and philosophers looked into the relationship between religion, philosophy, and science in which the more sophisticated ways of observing the world replaced the older ways. Religion, on one hand, was often thought to arise from magic, and science must, on the other hand, assume the reality of its matters so that it minimizes a critical metaphysical attitude (Kelley & Berridge, 2002).

‘Lightning kills?’

Many people believe there are more to thunderstorms than just the upward movement of warm, moist air which cools, condenses, and forms a cumulonimbus cloud. In Rwanda, it is believed that witch doctors can traditionally use the term ‘thunder’ attributed in their activities as the same lightning phenomenon, which occurs in unplanned time and situation, striking their so-called “own enemies” and Nigeria is neither left out of similar belief. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, as reported on the National Weather Service, so far this year, there have been 26 people reported to have been struck by lightning in the United States; out of which 12 were reported dead.

Several cases have also been recorded in Nigeria. Premium Times reports that a herd of cattle was hit by a thunderstorm, killing eight cows at Ekan-Ile area of Ikare Akoko, in Akoko North-East Local Government area of Ondo State on the night of Tuesday October 24, 2019. Premium Times noted that it was the second time a thunderstorm would strike dead a large number of cows in Ondo State, ‘a development that had been described as mysterious’.

On September 21, 2019, 36 cows were reported to have been destroyed by thunder in Ijare, in the Ifedore Local Government area of the State.

Vanguard also reported on September 22, 2019, that the 36 cows, belonging to a herdsman identified as Ladam, were struck dead by lightning at Ijare’s sacred hill in Ifedore Local Government Area of Ondo State.

The Hill, said to be only visited by the king of the town and some chiefs once in a year during the celebration of the new yam festival to perform some rituals, is suspected to be the cause of the cows’ death, as the incident was said to have been accompanied by a thunderstorm.

Reacting to the 36 dead cows on behalf of the Ondo State traditional ruler, his second-in-command, the Sapetu of Ijare, Chief Wemimo Olaniran, said, “In the past, we did witness thunderbolt attacks when you desecrated any part of Ijare, particularly the areas designated for sacrifice- the grove. The dead cows will be there forever. It is part of the history in our land, for people to see as testimony in future that such a thing happens. A whole Oba was buried there live and heaven did not fall, talk less of ordinary cows. Oke-Owa is a sacred hill, where Oba and some of his chiefs visit once a year during the new yam festival to offer sacrifices on behalf of the community. Even those chiefs accompanying the Oba must not go to the inner part of the hill, because there is a particular place where only the Oba has to enter and spend a night. That is what these herdsmen wanted to desecrate with their herds. It is a taboo. Cattle market in our place is not a blessing, but a curse.”

Dead bodies of animals found under tree in Brazil

On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, BBC Pidgin reported that a farm in Pedregulho, inside Sao Paulo state, Southeast Brazil, lost so many cows to the strike of lightning during a recent storm. Brazil local media reported that the animals were destroyed when they ran under a tree to hide from heavy rain. 

300 reindeers killed by thunderstorm in Norway in August 2016. Photo: Norwegian Environmental Agency

Myths and superstitions

As primitive man sought answers about the natural world, lightning became a part of his superstitions, his myths, and his early religions.

Early Greeks believed that lightning was a weapon of Zeus. Thunderbolts were invented by Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Since lightning was a manifestation of the gods, any spot struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman temples often were erected at these sites, where the gods were worshipped in an attempt to appease them.

Scandinavian mythology alludes to Thor, the thunderer, who was the foe of all demons. Thor tossed lightning bolts at his enemies. Thor also gave us Thurs-day. In the pantheistic Hindu religion, Indra was the god of heaven, lightning, rain, storms, and thunder. The Maruts used the thunderbolts as weapons. Umpundulo is the lightning bird-god of the Bantu tribesmen in Africa. 

Even today their medicine men go out in storms and bid the lightning to strike far away, The Navajo Indians hold that lightning has great power in their healing rituals. Sand paintings show the lightning bolt as a wink in the Thunderbird’s eye. Even Santa Klaus gets into the act with his reindeer Donner (thunder) and Blitzen (lightning).

Lightning is the most underrated weather hazard. It makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces one single bolt or ten thousand bolts. In the United States, lightning routinely kills more people each year than tornadoes and hurricanes combined. Tornadoes, hail, and wind gusts get the most attention, but only lightning can strike outside the storm itself. Lightning is the first thunderstorm hazard to arrive and the last to leave.

Research on lightning

In a simple definition, lightning is the bright line of light in the sky in a storm.

There must be something responsible for the effect of thunderstorms on humans, animals, plants, and properties. This is what the scientists and philosophers call the ‘universal law of cause and effect’. Many scholars agree that for every effect, there is a definite cause, hence, the need to scientifically and religiously consider the causes of thunderstorms effects.

In their study on ‘Lightning Myths versus Science Facts: Traditional Beliefs on Thunderstorms among Rwandans’, Ndihokubwayo Kizito and Nkundabakura Phéneas visited a witch doctor in order to ask what they thought about it. In a long talk held by witch doctor and his wife, living in Kagezi 2 sub- cell, Rwentanga cell near Nyabwishongwezi, Matimba sector in Nyagatare District, the researchers heard different heart striking stories both from the witch doctor, his wife and patients with them, these are:

  • In 1978 when the witch doctor’s wife was 16 years old, a man called Musonera was a witch doctor, but he died in 1994. Then Sebuturo, a son of Jinja and Pascasie (mother) went to request black power (gucisha) from him. On return Sebuturo has to thank Musonera, he went and took a good black young cow from father and mother by force and gave it to him. His mother got annoyed with another powerful witch doctor, after only two days that black young cow was stricken among other cows, it was about 1:00 pm.
  • “One example is where a young girlfriend had a quarrel with her boyfriend and they separated, the gentleman decided to take his complaint to a witch doctor. In the daylight, a girl on street walking with children was struck by the thunder, however, a little rain had first begun to rain before heating her. Interestingly, she was burned and the children stayed safe!
  • Another caretaker from Kirehe district who was around when the researchers visited the witch doctor’s home told them that: “different kinds of witches exist as different types of poisons also exist. One is called thunder. You may be poisoned by acids and any other chemical products but witch doctors have other traditional tragedies in the form of noise or abstract power. While some poisons can be swallowed, introduced through bodies, put in the way and someone on the street who is targeted steps on them, others may be sent to attack you, including the thunder burns and strikes.”

The witch doctor’s wife told the researchers that “as you can be poisoned and get mad, you can also be sent thunder and die on spot”. The researchers were also made to know that: “when thunder struck an object in your presence, you cannot leave the place and use the stricken firewood’s before purifying it and the place, otherwise, it stays there for a long time but I cannot prove. She added that the thunder without water is the one sent to wrongdoers, but it comes first as a small cloud because ‘you can’t fire a lamp without a match’; noting that a poisoned (sent) thunder occurs once. “Sending a thunder to someone is because of jealousy, hate or someone has done worse to another or in society, it strikes like the one from heaven. Yeah, it is called thunder!” She added.

But how true and scientific are these claims or myths?

Background:

Thunderstorms, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is characterised by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the earth’s atmosphere, known as thunder; while relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thunder-showers. It results from the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air, sometimes along a front and as the warm, moist air moves upward, it cools, condenses, and forms a cumulonimbus cloud that can reach heights of over 20 kilometres (12 mi).

As the rising air reaches its dew point temperature, water vapor condenses into water droplets or ice, reducing pressure locally within the thunderstorm cell. It occurs in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus and is usually accompanied by strong winds, often producing heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. 

Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. While strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes; some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones.

Thunderstorms can form and develop in any geographic location but most frequently within the mid-latitude, where warm, moist air from tropical latitudes collides with cooler air from polar latitudes. Thunderstorms are responsible for the development and formation of many severe weather phenomena and they pose great hazards. Damage that results from thunderstorms is mainly inflicted by downburst winds, large hailstones, and flash flooding caused by heavy precipitation. Stronger thunderstorm cells are capable of producing tornadoes and waterspouts.

Verification

A thunderstorm is a type of storm with lightning and thunder. They are caused by an updraft, which occurs when warm, moist air rises vertically into the atmosphere. The updraft creates a cumulus cloud, which will eventually be the thunderstorm cloud. Scientists found basic ingredients that form a thunderstorm as Moisture (torn from clouds and rain), unstable air (warm air that can rise rapidly), lifting mechanism (caused by cold or warm fronts, sea breezes, mountains, or heat from the sun). Thunderstorms can occur almost anywhere and are the beginnings of some other dangerous storms like hurricanes and tornadoes.

Also, it is a way for the atmosphere to release energy; when warm moist air meets cold dry air, the warm air rises; the water vapour condenses in the air, and forms a cloud. As the water vapour condenses, it releases heat, which is a form of energy. A large amount of the thunderstorm’s energy comes from the condensation process that forms its clouds. As the thunderstorm progresses, eventually the rain cools the entire process down and the energy is gone.

According to findings, thunderstorms help keep the earth in electrical balance. The earth’s surface and the atmosphere conduct electricity easily as the earth is charged negatively and the atmosphere, positively. But, the thunderstorm is not without some hazards because it is really dangerous. Heavy rains can lead to floods and flood waters can plow through earthen dams, pull homes off their foundations and sweep them away, knock out power lines, and contaminate drinking water for weeks. Lightning can set off building or farm fires, damage electrical equipment, and electrocute humans and livestock. High winds can cause damage to homes, overturn vehicles, uproot or damage trees, or blow down utility poles causing widespread power outages and other great avoc.

Verification with an herbalist

In an interview with an herbalist, the Asiwaju Esin Agba in Ibadan, Baba-Awo Awodele Adeyemi Oladejo noted that traditionally, thunder can be sent to individuals when there are cases of theft, and its assignment will be to fish out, i.e kill, who stole what. He said that thunder can strike anytime, whether rainy or dry season and once it identifies its victims, it exposes them by placing what they stole beside them and leaves.

In a case of thunder killing a person who never stole, he noted that what can happen could be that the person was ignorantly in the way the thunder was to pass to meet its victim, hence, the thunder crushes anything on its way to accomplish its assignment. EVEN AT THAT, IT STILL KILLS THE WRONG PERSON, THUS, UNDERMINING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THIS JUJU. WHAT DO YOU THINK?

According to the published “Flash Facts About Lightning” by National Geographic, the spark can reach over five miles (eight kilometers) in length, raise the temperature of the air by as much as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (27,700 degrees Celsius), and contain a hundred million electrical volts. According to Prahm et al., lightning can heat the air it passes through about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun (27,760 degrees Celsius) while a usual lightning flash is about 300 million Volts and about 30,000 Amps (, 2013).

Lightning detection systems in the United States monitor an average of 25 million strokes of lightning from clouds to ground during some 100,000 thunderstorms every year. It is estimated that Earth as a whole is struck by an average of more than a hundred lightning bolts every second.

Verification with research

Prahm et al noted that Lightning often strikes the same place many times, particularly if it is a tall, pointy, and isolated object; for instance, the Canadian National Tower, at a height of 553m, is the one of the tallest human-made, self-supporting structures in the world. While the number of flashes per year per square kilometer in Toronto is about 2, the tower actually receives many tens of lightning strikes each year. Therefore, the appropriate diffusion of awareness on lightning protection and safety down to villages is crucial to stop the death of human beings, livestock, and property.

In educated people’s opinions, they present their worries to touch a lightning victim, which is the most terrifying of lightning myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation….these worries are removed by Viemeister and Prahm et al. saying that if a lightning victim is electrified, you can touch them to give them first aid and you will not be electrocuted because the human body does not store electricity.

But to a researcher, Ryan Blumenthal, lightning is dangerous and a most consistent weather killer on earth, because it kills more people than hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. He noted that lightning kills approximately 24,000 people around the world every year and approximately 240,000 people will be struck or injured but survive a lightning strike, often with severe disabilities. 

The conception of the thunder in many cultures is different from the one we learnt from Physics class. For instance, research and interview with traditional elders found that more traditional beliefs are found in old and uneducated people.

Overcoming the worries related to traditional beliefs using scientific researchers’ testimonies and safety is now encouraged. For instance, though none can be totally safe from a lightning hit, prevention strategies can lessen risks. Thus, avoidance of lightning damage should be an individual duty and everyone should know daily local weather predictions and harmful consequences.  

As of August 18, 2020, 12 lightning fatalities have occurred this year. Image via NOAA (National Weather Service).

Verification with a Physicist

A Physicist, Dr Mojisola Adeniyi noted that thunderstorms are atmospheric phenomena which occur as a result of a development in the atmosphere. She noted that as there is electricity used in the house, there exists electricity which is from the thunderstorm cloud, explaining that “in the thunderstorm cloud, we have positive and negative charging which occurs as a result of a turbulence in the cloud”.

In a further explanation on how a lightning and thunder occur, Dr Adeniyi said within the thunderstorm cloud there is charge separation which causes turbulence within the thunderstorm cloud resulting in the cloud droplet colliding with each other, which makes some of them lose electrons due to the collision, and others gaining the electrons. The one losing electrons becomes positively charged while the one gaining electrons becomes negatively charged because the electron is negative. The addition to the negatively charged cloud droplets makes it heavier, coming below the cloud, while the positively charged cloud droplets go up due to the order in the thunderstorm cloud. 

She added that: “research has shown that we also have like a bucket of positive charges also below, but generally, we have the negative charges below and the positive charges up there”. As this continues, there occurs electric feeds and when the feed is very strong to the extent that it can release part of the electrons below, those negative charges become electrons. 

She noted that on the surface of the earth, there are also charges that are positive and usually unlike charges (that is, positive and negative) attracts, so the negative charges at the base of the thunderstorm cloud attracts the positive charges at the surface of the earth, as this continues, the electrons at the base of the thunderstorm cloud comes down to meet with the positive charges on the surface of the earth….and as this happens, a conducting part is formed to keep the flow while the positive charged goes to meet with them before they get to the surface of the earth, and, at that point, the conducting part reaches the surface of the earth. So, the one coming down is the test-lethal stroke and then, the one coming from the surface of the earth to meet up is the. So, return stroke (one coming from the surface of the earth) makes way for the electrons that have been dragged along the way (they are not able to get down) to be able to come down. As the return stroke occurs, the type of the temperature that is involved because very high because of the turbulence of the movement within a very short time up to 30,000 degree tension, hence, it brightens the conducting path, seen as lightning; and Diego the temperature, the part is heated up, expands and explodes…the explosion is what we hear as thunder”.

Speaking on religious beliefs, Dr Adeniyi pointed out that God also, according to Psalms 18:13, can purposely send thunder. “The Lord sent thunder from the heavens. People heard the voice of the Most High. There was hail and there was lightning”. (Easy English version). Adding that it can be spiritual with a scientific explanation.

She also noted that traditionally, if there can be rain out of its season which of course comes with a thunderstorm from the cloud, it can be possible that the gods send thunder; “but whatever they might have done will just be to allow the scientific activities to come up”.

Conclusion:

There is always a scientific analysis to the effect of lightning and thunderstorm as the energy in a thunderstorm is high enough to evaporate the water in anything it comes in contact with, whether a key, human being or whatever and that will be the end of such a human or whatever thing.

The causes of death in lightning, according to Physicist Adeniyi, is basically the way people contact lightning, such as:

  • A direct strike occurs when the lethal stroke comes down and a person is at that point; it passes through and endangers the person. It is the most dangerous of all of them but doesn’t always happen. 
  • Side clash occurs when a person is beside the contact object, that is, a person is beside a particular object that receives the coming strike. This can also injure and/or kill, depending on the person’s body makeup. 
  • It is also possible that lightning hits the earth surface and a person is close to the point where it hits the surface, the voltage on the glands can still get to and affect the person. 
  • Then, if a particular object is affected and a person comes in contact with that object, either by touching, handling or other ways, one can be affected too.

Hence, there is a need to take some healthy precautions when it is raining or when a person sights lightning as indicated in the diagram below.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with the Broadcastings Corporation of Oyo State, to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in Journalism and enhance Media Literacy in the Country.

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