Not only does Reynaldo Zoro have a cool name, he’s got a cool job to go with it. Reynaldo is a lightning expert and the country’s foremost authority on thunderstorms and intense weather.
When he’s not lecturing at the Bandung Institute of Technology, he’s discussing lightning protection and electrical grounding with some of Jakarta’s biggest businesses. Because in a city that enjoys somewhere between 100 and 120 days of thunder and lightning each year, ears tend to prick up when Reynaldo talks about protecting the city’s high-rises and the millions of dollars worth of computers and equipment inside them.
How did you get into lightning analysis?
It started in 1979. Nobody had studied lightning in subtropical climates. In 1983 I came back to Indonesia — I was in Switzerland, in a tower about 200 meters above sea level, but there were only two strikes while I was there so I moved to Tangkuban Perahu, where we get 40 to 50 lightning strikes a year. So I had to go back and forth while I was getting my PhD.
What are the odds someone will get struck by lightning?
It’s low, but a lot of kampungs, a lot of places out in the mountains of Indonesia, have a correlation with lightning — kampung petir or pondok petir [lightning towns] — because a lot of people are killed by lightning. When a newspaper reporter is there you hear about it, but otherwise you have to go to the Pak RT [neighborhood head].
So how much force is in a lightning strike?
We talk about it in kiloamps, and the maximum in Jakarta or Indonesia is about 200 kiloamps. But the average here in the city is about 50 kiloamps.
Can you give us an example of how much power that is?
The temperature of this lightning channel is about 10,000 degrees Celsius — higher than the surface of the sun. But it’s an impulse — very short — only about 100 microseconds.
So is it possible to survive being hit by lightning?
Yeah, especially when you’re wet. The current flows over the body, the skin. Normally, say if people are out playing football, it will hit only one of them. It’s called a point of strike. If lighting hits the ground, the voltage dissipates in widening circles until it eventually reduces to zero. If a person was standing near the center of the strike, there is a difference in force between the two points. The closer you are to the strike, the higher the voltage. Cows are a good example. Sometimes they are not struck by the bolt but die anyway. We call that step voltage.
Does altitude affect it?
Yes, that’s why you shouldn’t stand next to trees. Just put your feet together and get close to the ground. But if you’re on a golf course it’s not necessary to run — there’s simply not enough time.
So, let’s say I’m on golf course here in Jakarta. What should I do if there’s a lot of lightning?
Normally, there is an early warning system so you don’t have to worry about that. But the best thing to do is stay away from trees, stay away from your clubs and get down and tuck your knees into yourself.
Is it true you can tell how far away a storm is by counting the time between seeing lightning and when you hear thunder?
That’s right. Once you see the flash, you can count one, two, three … and then divide it by two to get the distance in kilometers. If you don’t see it or hear it, then you better be careful [laughs].
Why is it OK if you’re in a car?
Because of the metal; because the metal frame of the car is so close to the ground. The problem is, when you’re on the tollway you can’t go over 80 kph. If you’re car gets hit by lightning and the tires blow out, you will have an accident.
How many days a year does lightning strike in Jakarta?
One hundred to 120. In Tangkuban Perahu, it’s about 150 and Bogor is 236.
So does Bogor have the most lightning strikes in the world?
It’s recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. The highest rate of thunderstorms in the world is in Bogor. That’s why when Bush was here, and they were trying to figure out whether to have him take the tollway or a helicopter, I told them, “Don’t use a helicopter!” He didn’t have to worry about being killed by terrorists so much as getting hit by lightning.
Why are thunderstorms so frequent in Indonesia?
There are three reasons. There is the updraft, Indonesia gets a lot of sun so the updraft comes into play. Second is the aerosol that comes from the industrial pollutants and the forest fires. And third is the humidity.
Tell us something about lightning that nobody knows.
Lightning can travel 15 kilometers from source to ground. That’s why it’s possible for someone to get hit by lightning when you don’t see any clouds at all.
When you talk to businesses about lightning protection, what do you discuss?
Normally they ask how best to protect buildings, transmission lines, telecommunications towers and the equipment inside buildings. We design the protection and after we install it, we supervise everything — we have a counter so we know how many strikes each building gets. We also have a lighting position and tracking system that we use to track lightning in real time.
A lot of the time when computers and things are affected by lightning, it’s because the protection was not installed according to standards. You have to protect all your equipment — electronics and microprocessors are very fragile when it comes to lightning impulses.
My laptop has a surge protector, is that enough?
Lightning may not wreck the computer, but it will shorten the life. That’s the problem banks and businesses run into. They expect computers to last five years, but only end up lasting two. They don’t realize that.