National Geographic : 2012 Aug
• strikes. Samaras starts up a gasoline generator, and the equipment inside the trailer comes alive. A wall of video screens displays weather infor- mation, and an electronic voice---the Lightning Lady, I call her---matter-of-factly announces the distance of the strikes: "17 miles, 15 miles, 11 miles." en she gives a warning: "Very high electric eld." " e electric- eld meter is going absolutely nuts," Samaras observes. A sensor mounted on the shell of the trailer measures the charge of the atmosphere at ten kilovolts per meter and rising, meaning that it's dangerous to be outside. e two Phantoms aboard the trailer go to work, capturing images of the milliseconds before and during the lightning ashes. under is crack- ing above us. But throughout the cacophony, the Kahuna sits quietly o -line. e conditions just aren't right for getting the shot. We pack up and move on, and soon another rainbow---a double one---appears. Samaras stops the truck in the middle of the main intersec- tion of Clayton, New Mexico, oblivious to the honks and cursing drivers, while the National Geographic photographer takes some pictures, of the ordinary kind. ON LABOR DAY WEEKEND, toward the end of the season, I caught up with Samaras at an exit o I-25 in Belen, New Mexico. By then he and his crew had driven more than 10,000 miles across six states, collecting hundreds of megabytes of data from the Phantoms---but only near misses with the Kahuna. With only two days le in the summer's expe- dition, we followed a battery of storms north of the Magdalena Mountains. In mida ernoon we found ourselves parked, purely by coincidence, directly across Highway 60 from the turnoff to the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research---a premier spot for studying rocket- triggered lightning. A storm hung suspended over the mountains as if posed for a portrait, sparking lightning obediently above a distant ridge. Standing in the foreground on the other side of the highway, a cow gave us a curious eye. Using the animal as a reference point, Samaras started up the turbine and took aim. e sky ashed, the Kahuna red, and the long down- load of data began. en, with the camera o -line, there was a better strike---this one directly over the cow. Unsure of the rst shot, Samaras made a split- second decision to terminate the download and try again. e chance never came. He'll never know whether that rst attempt captured an im- age of the attachment process or just a blurry silhouette of a cow. BY THE TIME I SAW SAMARAS again, two years later, he had reluctantly decided to try what he felt in his heart was cheating: aiming his cam- era at rocket-triggered lightning. With a new pickup truck and an improved Kahuna---he had stayed home the previous summer jiggering the electronics---he and his crew had spent another two weeks following storms across the South- west. Now he was making the long, slow climb to Langmuir's mountaintop laboratory. Built in 1963 by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, the labora- tory sits in the path of the monsoonal moisture that ows up each summer from the south. Shel- tered inside an underground bunker called the Kiva, on South Baldy peak, a researcher remotely res rockets, each connected to a long wire, into a highly charged storm cloud. Colleagues record the strike with a Phantom and other instruments in a building called the Annex, a mile away. Bill Winn, head of the lab, seemed as skepti- cal about Samaras's approach as Samaras was of triggered lightning. ("Isn't he just interested in pretty pictures?" Winn had asked me earlier.) But the two men greeted each other cordially. "You should have been here today," Winn said. "We had three strikes." "Figures," Samaras said. One of the scientists explained that when conditions were right, a rocket would be armed and a ve-second count- down would begin---any longer and the storm might produce a natural ash out of range of their instruments. Samaras looked worried. Since the Kahuna took ten seconds to spin up to speed, he would have to idle the turbine at a loping pace to keep it from overheating, then crank it up before the countdown began. e next day's weather was discouragingly calm, but the storm that arose on the third day justi ed the wait. By early a ernoon seven red- centered blobs were registering on the radar---a potent weather system to our northeast headed right for us. By 3 p.m. rain was falling faster and faster, hardening brie y to hail. We retreated inside the trailer and watched out the back.