Thunder Dome

Learning to love from a distance

Unless you’ve been offline the past week, then you’re likely aware that California has been inundated by precipitation — vast torrents of rain, and enough hail one afternoon that my backyard here in San Francisco looked like someone had tipped over a ton of ice cube trays.

Along with the rain has come something I became relatively inured to as a child in New York, but experience far less often in the San Francisco Bay Area: lightning. The rain got so intense this past week that I pulled up the website to track the impending impact. For the record: I am no longer inured. In fact, I still suffer low-grade storm PTSD since the four years I lived in New Orleans (1999-2003: loved the city, but hurricane alerts take a toll).

A screenshot from Lightning Maps showing thunder approaching
Circles of Hell: These slowly expand on the Lightning Maps website to show thunder as it emanates from a strike, each depicted here as a bright yellow dot. 

At the height of the storm, it was amazing to watch in the website’s interface as the lightning strikes exuded thunder out of hearing range, and to then sit and wait as the thunder approached, each strike’s fierce echo visualized in ever-changing Venn diagrams of doom that slowly expanded and decayed in equal measure.

So much online life is founded on semi-asynchronicity, on latency, on lag — on communicating in fits and starts, on sending out information and waiting for a reply. In the case of email it can be hours or days (or if I’m your correspondent, months); with social media and, especially, text messages, we’re accustomed to brief pauses that we struggle not to fill with meaning. 

With the geometrically perfect, slowly expanding circles of browser-based Lightning Maps, the meaning is clear. (Side note: if you know of an ad-free way to experience this data, please let me know. I bought the iPad app but far as I can tell, the app doesn’t feature the slowly expanding circles I found so useful in the web interface.) The latency between lighting strike and thunder is based on rudimentary physics, not on someone’s availability or mood. You watch as the wave of sound approaches. Given the sheer force of some of the recent thunder, especially in the context of its relative unfamiliarity in these here parts, the live map has provided a form of comfort by helping prepare me for the arrival of the next boom — and the one after that. 

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