Modern society has so well insulated itself from the might of nature that it takes a cataclysmic event to get people’s attention again. Yet, every day forces, matched only occasionally by the most monumental of human triumphs, move across the globe as they did for ages before the first cell formed more than four billion years ago and as they will continue to do after the last human being has passed into history.
Few everyday phenomena demonstrate the casual power of nature as well as lightning. In the blink of an eye, the air itself glows white-hot as thousands of amps of electric charge leap from place to place. Every year, a few unlucky souls are struck by a flash, some directly, some indirectly. Those who survive are left with fractal marks creeping across their skin in patterns believed to extend to the molecular level — to say nothing of blindness, deafness and nerve damage.
For all the damage it can do to a body, humans know so little about lightning. Science has determined what lightning is — a huge, sudden discharge of electricity which travels from cloud to ground, cloud to cloud or, occasionally, ground to cloud — but so much is still unknown.
This is where Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research presents itself. It’s a unique facility nestled high in the Magdalena Mountains just south of South Baldy Peak. Accessing the lab is difficult; the narrow mountain road up out of Water Canyon Campground is seven miles long and inaccessible by most vehicles, with drops of 100 feet or more off of the roadside in some places. A few curves are nicknamed for those who have gone over the edge.
Up the rocky road, little but thick evergreen can be seen. A little over 10,000 feet in elevation, the trees give way to a bright green field. This place, 10,600 feet above sea level, is Langmuir Lab. The skies are a brilliant blue, and the stunning but subdued green hills look like something out of a storybook as they rise from the near-black of the treeline. Though it’s almost 75 degrees this time of year, the wind blows cold and crisp, clean and fresh.
“It’s beautiful up here,” said Ryan Ashton, one of this summer’s researchers. “I love it.”
Ashton is a New Mexico Tech student, an undergraduate entering his third year seeking a degree in physics. This is his first summer working at the lab, and he has enjoyed the experience thoroughly so far. He described it as the best summer job he could imagine.
“Every day I come up here, it’s like play for me. I don’t feel like I’ve worked a single day I’ve come up here,” he said. “The nature of our work is not hard, it’s not laborious, it’s not boring. It really is like a play day or a camping trip every time I come up here.”
Though some staff members commute daily, others stay at an on-site facility for many days at a stretch. Typically, Ashton spends six days a week at the lab. He returns to Socorro for laundry, food and water, then returns to the high peak to dedicate his time to researching lightning.
Living on the mountain for extended periods of time presents many challenges, and conditions are far from luxurious. The lab’s water tank is fifty years old and the staff doesn’t drink it, though it’s good enough for dishes. Their drinking water comes up in a truck — which is a nightmare to meet on the road to or from the facility. It’s common for staff members to bring a gallon or two of clean water back when going into town. The dozen or so empty gallon bottles on the kitchen counter are evidence enough of that.
Swarms of moths get into every nook and cranny they can find. They pervade every interior space. The cupola at the main building smells of dead moths and lemon cleaning fluid, a unique combination that renders the beautiful 360 degree view less of a delight.
The weather is also harsh up there. A rainstorm, for all the opportunity it brings, turns the world frigid for some hours up there, and 75 degrees can drop below 50 in half an hour. Nights get similarly cold, even in summer. Night storms flirt with freezing.
Entertainment in the evenings is not always easy to come by. Slow internet speeds prohibit streaming content, but the researchers find ways to stay entertained. Ashton said he and his coworkers would watch nighttime storms from the third floor of the main building, taking slightly-nervous delight as the lightning came closer and closer.
“We have our electric field meter up. We watch it, and when this line gets above 0.5, we run inside,” he said. It’s a safe threshold, so there isn’t any danger.
The view is worth it. In rain or sun, the area is beautiful. Those green fields are dotted with the vivid purples and reds and pinks of Indian paintbrush, wild onion and other high mountain flowers. To the east is Water Canyon Campground and a distant view of the Rio Grande and parts of the Chihuaha further south. To the west is a magnificent view of the Plains of San Agustin. One might spot the Very Large Array with a good pair of binoculars. From the hill to the north, one can see all the way to Albuquerque.
Graduate student Jake Trueblood, who is spending his third summer at the lab, described an average work day. He tries to be at his office — Kiva Two, one of a pair of buried faraday cages that collects lightning data directly — by 9 a.m. in order to set up his equipment for the day. He runs the rockets that trigger lightning strikes.
Originally, the lab used model rockets, according to models in the visitor’s center/lounge. The rockets used this summer are constructed more simply — “made from the finest Duck tape,” said Ashton. Trueblood uses wire bobbins from old French antitank tube-launched, optically monitored, wire-guided (TOW) missiles to feed wire to the rising rockets, which are powered by large model rocket motors. These odds-and-ends pieces of equipment are the result of a constantly-refining experimental process that has resulted in a lightning trigger made of parts that are massively reusable or vaporize on use.
With assistance from Ashton and fellow NMT physics undergraduate Christina Nevarez, Trueblood has his rockets set up and a few seconds from being ready to fire, while NMT physicists Dr. Ken Eack and Dr. Graydon Aulich install their lightning rods. He likes to have his setup ready by 10 or 11 a.m. — and a good thing, too. This day, Monday, July 16, was going to be an exciting day. Weather reports predicted a storm coming in from the west, and it is the first day this summer they’ve had everything ready to go for a full research run. Aulich, Ashton, Eack and Nevarez left for the balloon hanger while Trueblood sequestered himself in the kiva, ready for a direct lightning strike.
Around the balloon hanger are several sensors and rigs for sensor equipment. Inside, the undergraduates assisted Dr. William P. Winn, Aulich and Eack as they prepared a string of sensors to be sent up into the storm by weather balloon.
Around noon, Ashton broke for lunch, eating a sandwich just outside the hangar. In the distance, thunder rumbled gently.
“It’s going to be a good play day for me,” he said.
To the west, a bright, sharply defined rain spout was already pouring out of the clouds. A wide, dark veil of rain covered Mt. Withington to the southwest. The storm set into the lab quickly. By 1 p.m., it was raining lightly on the building’s corrugated steel roof. By 1:30, the rain was coming down hard, echoing through the hangar like applause.
Ashton and Winn worked quickly to inflate the weather balloon — an off-white helium-filled thing around 12 feet across — and send up test balloons. Eack was in contact with Aulich, Trueblood and other researchers across the mountain via radio. The radio chatter went on for a bit as Trueblood prepared to launch his rockets.
Eack stepped out into the main hangar and called a five-second warning. All free hands went to the open mouth of the hangar, facing the kivas to the north.
The rocket misfired — no bolt came down. The researchers returned to preparation and monitoring the storm. Winn and Nevarez’s computers graphed the strength of the electric field. It would rise higher and higher, then plummet suddenly as the field burst and charge ripped across the air.
“Five seconds,” Eack called again. Again, the group returned to the hangar’s open mouth.
The lightning struck the rocket and burned down the wire, turning it to a grey-black line of gas in a fraction of a second. It lit up the hilltop brighter than the sun, passing enormous current through the walls and floor of the kivas and into the earth.
Ashton and Nevarez stood in a trance-like state for a moment. They’d both seen pictures of lightning triggered by human efforts, but neither had seen it in person, and the sight was awe-inspiring. All hands then returned to their work.
In the camera room on the third floor of the main building, post doctorate Harald Edens reviewed the mapping data and the video. In that fraction of a second it took for the wire to vaporize and the flash to cease, the high-speed camera captured thousands of frames of video. That video and the map of the flash were stored and archived for later in-depth analysis.
Of the eight rockets Trueblood launched that day, only that second one triggered a flash. Eack later said he hadn’t expected to get a successful trigger until later in the month, and this was the earliest in the year he’d seen a triggered flash.
After the risk of lightning striking had passed, Trueblood and Nevarez searched the mountainside east of the kivas for the misfired rockets. Trueblood would then repair them and prepare them for the next day’s launch, reassembling them around a new motor. His life and the lives of his colleagues settled into preparation and waiting for the next research opportunity, the next storm, the next busy day.
Tomorrow looked like a busy day too, with a storm supposed to come in around noon.