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Remarkable Moment of Lightning Striking the Ocean off Oregon Coast at Pacific City

Published 09/05/23 at 6:37 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Pacific City, Oregon) – The skies have been active lately over much of the Oregon coast and inland area, and that's not just referring to the rain. Lightning and thunder have been a rather dramatic pair of visitors lately, swooping in and causing a raucous on and off for the last ten days. (Photo Joel Zwink)

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In fact, it was on the morning of August 25 when that old adage of “right place, right time” came into play for one lightning storm on the north Oregon coast. One lucky dude, Pacific City's Joel Zwink, captured a downright jaw-dropping shot of lightning smacking the ocean right next to Haystack Rock.

It was about 2 a.m. when thunder woke him up. So, he grabbed his camera, fired off dozens of shots from his deck overlooking the sleepy beach village, and caught almighty Thor himself. One serious bolt from the sky fires off and hits the ocean, lighting up the rock and everything around it. That purple glow comes not just from the lightning itself but the unique atmospheric conditions that occur when things get this humid as well.

Zwink told Oregon Coast Beach Connection that even though he was out on the deck with a metal tripod, he wasn't worried about becoming a lightning rod himself.

Unbordered original from Zwink

“I wasn't worried as there were a couple higher spots on the house that would have acted as a lightning rod,” he said.

That photo he snagged on the 20th shot, he said. It took awhile to get the exposure right as lightning has a tendency to burn out your photo and make everything a blurry white. He was shooting at 15-second exposures, which also lights up the surroundings in its own way.

Stats: Nikon Z6ii - iso 200 - Nikkor 40mm with an f 2 lens.

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This all brings up the question: what causes lightning out on the Oregon coast?

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service, it's a spark of electricity between clouds, the air and the ground – or in this case, the ocean. It starts because of the vast difference in positive charges and negative charges that are in storm clouds and between the ground region and the clouds themselves. Air normally acts as an insulator between those charges, but something gives sometimes.

According to NOAA:

“When the opposite charges build up enough, this insulating capacity of the air breaks down and there is a rapid discharge of electricity that we know as lightning. (The actual breakdown process is still poorly understood.) The air breakdown creates ions and free electrons that travel down the conducting channel. This current flow temporarily equalizes the charged regions in the atmosphere until the opposite charges build up again.”

All those fingers or branches of lightning? That's the lightning trying to blindly find it's way from the negative charges in the clouds to the positive charge at the ground.

If lightning hits sand it can create glass, although Oregon Coast Beach Connection has not yet found any historical reports of that here on the coast. Not yet.

So what happens when lightning hits the ocean?

NOAA said not a heck of a lot – generally.

“Lightning doesn’t strike the ocean as much as land, but when it does, it spreads out over the water, which acts as a conductor. It can hit boats that are nearby, and electrocute fish that are near the surface,” NOAA said on its website.

Still, if you're out on a vessel at sea and lightning strikes, you need to get back in port or get down below. NOAA said not to use electronic equipment when it's around.

If you can hear thunder that means you can be struck by lightning – even if it's apparently quite a ways away. Lightning doesn't necessarily hit the tallest thing near it, either.

“The odds of being struck in your lifetime (estimated to be 80 years) are 1 in 15,300,” NOAA said.

Zwink has this shot for sale. See MORE LIGHTNING PHOTOS BELOW

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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