Don't say bolt
On the hunt for lightning strikes around Big Sky
The famed geographer Henry Gannett was about 50 feet from the top of an unexplored summit not far from Big Sky on a stormy July day when he felt an electrical current pass through his body.
Gannet continued to push ahead, determined to reach the top of this nearly 11,000-foot peak. But the further he moved uphill, the more he was overcome by an electrical cracking sound.
The noise, Gannett said, “Was deafening, and my hair stood completely on end, while the tingling, pricking sensation was absolutely painful.”
One of the men in Gannett’s party was knocked to the ground by an electrical charge. That’s when everyone retreated several hundred feet down the mountain, where they waited for the storm to pass. Under clear skies, they completed their march to the top of what today is known as Electric Peak, one of the most prominent mountains in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, 29 miles southeast of Big Sky.
Summer is lightning season, though a cross country skier was struck in West Yellowstone in Nov. 2017. Lightning, especially dry lightning produced by passing thunderstorms with not much precipitation, will be the focus of weather watchers up and down Gallatin Canyon in the coming weeks as downed trees and grasses continue to dry out.
On recent back to back afternoons—Thursday and Friday, Aug. 2-3—lightning storms rolled over the Big Sky area and each evoked a response from a team of Forest Service and Park Service experts stationed at the West Yellowstone Airport.
“The way we typically operate following a lightning storm, we’ll put up what we call a detection flight,” explained Marna Daley, a Forest Service public affairs specialist. “We’ll look at the lightning detection maps that are generated by the National Weather Service, and we’ll look at where the clusters of lightning will have likely occurred. And usually we do that about mid-afternoon, when the temperatures are heating up and the relative humidity is beginning to drop, and we’ll look for smoke.”
That’s what happened on Aug. 2-3, and Daley said at that time, “So far we haven’t picked up anything from the storms that moved through the last couple of days.”
But heading into last weekend, Aug. 4-5, the National Weather Service in Great Falls spotted trouble brewing.
“There’s been lightning toward that area, quite a bit recently,” said Christian Cassell, a NWS meteorologist tracking storm patterns passing over Yellowstone Park and Big Sky. “We’re just hoping we can make it through this lightning activity without more wildfire happening.”
Then, on Aug. 4, a lightning strike ignited the new Folsom Fire in YNP.
Cassell went on to describe the lightning activity around Big Sky as “prolific.” In 1988, strikes were abundant enough to start 42 fires inside Yellowstone, leading to what is remembered as an apocalyptic fire season 30 years ago.
That summer, conditions were drier and more prone to quick ignition when lightning struck.
“In a typical season there are thousands of lightning strikes in Yellowstone. Lightning strikes are powerful enough to rip strips of bark off of a tree in a shower of sparks and blow the pieces up to 100 feet away,” warns the Park Service in a public education web posting. “However, most lightning strikes do not result in a wildfire because fuels are not in a combustible state.”
This appears to be where the Big Sky area sits right now, with recent passing storms dropping more moisture on forest fuels not yet in full tinder box mode.
Mike Johnson, a fire information specialist with the National Parks Service assigned to the Bacon Rind Fire, said the closest blaze to Big Sky is, “Not picking up a whole lot with the wind on it because of the moisture we got. It’s just jumping from cluster to cluster of trees.” (See Katie Moen’s story on page A6.)
As the storms continue to pass over, the detection flights will continue, said Johnson, who described the Bacon Rind Fire as a “holdover,” meaning it was ignited by lightning a few days before it caught fire enough to put off detectable smoke.
A new lightning start could send smokejumpers parachuting into the scene with the hope of stopping small blazes before they flare up into something that might threaten private property and human lives.
To monitor exactly how many strikes flash around Big Sky, you can monitor lightning detections using LightningMaps.org or the online NIFC Lightning Viewer, managed by the National Interagency Fire Center.
Both are fun, interesting online tools for watching lightning in what feels like real-time, but these free online sources only provide data going back 48 hours.
To get the deluxe, all-you-can-eat combo plate of lightning data, you need the help of a private company called Vaisala, based in Helsinki, Finland.
Cassell sighed and audibly shrugged when asked if the National Weather Service could turn over Vaisala lightning maps for a 25-mile radius around Big Sky. The Lookout wanted to compare lightning frequency between July 2008 and July 2018 and see if there’s been any change in strike frequency.
Cassell said there was nothing he could do, however he could provide other data like relative humidity and dew points. But those numbers are nowhere near as cool as lightning.
“When lightning comes to the ground, it emits a unique electromagnetic signal,” explained Ron Holle, spokesperson from the Vaisala Network Operations Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Vaisala uses technology developed at the University of Arizona in the late 1970s to maintain a network of 110 lightning antennas around the U.S.
In July and August, there are lightning flashes all over Southwest Montana and Holle said, “We detect over 90 percent of them. It’s pretty mature technology.”
Vaisala agreed to provide the Lookout—free of charge—three lightning flash maps showing activity in a 25-mile radius around Big Sky. They showed in July 2008, the community and surrounding forest experienced 866 flashes, with many of them clustered to the northeast along the Gallatin Crest.
Ten years later, in July 2018, 710 flashes were detected in the same area, including some grouped near Town Center, the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks, Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin.
Looking back at August 2017, Vaisala’s lightning flash map for Big Sky registered 436 flashes, including a cluster near Beehive Basin.
In the coming weeks, as storms approach Big Sky, log onto LightningMaps.org and follow along, just like the Lookout did on Friday, Aug. 3. That’s when a thunderstorm roared through Big Sky between 1:30 and 2 p.m., leaving deposits of hail in the grass and flashing lightning over Moonlight Basin, Lone Mountain and Pioneer Mountain.
By zooming into Big Sky on LightningMaps.org, it was possible to watch lightning detections appear strike by strike. The storm worked its way downhill from the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks, as lightning flashes registered around Town Center and down Lone Mountain Trail to a location just south of American Bank. Meanwhile, other lightning strikes dotted the map to the north and east of Big Sky, as the storm continued to roll toward Hyalite Canyon and Bozeman.
Watching the screen fill with dots indicating new strikes and seeing the lightning flash outside the office windows on Aug. 3 offered a much safer, virtual simulation of what Gannett—the famed geographer—experienced atop Electric Peak. Nobody’s hair stood on end. Nobody got zapped.
“At first, I felt nothing,” Gannett said recalling his exploratory trip up Electric Peak. But then, lightning quick, that changed. Gannett said he experienced “a tingling or pricking sensation in my head and the ends of my fingers, which, increased rapidly.”