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Counting sparks.

Stand on top of South Baldy Peak in the Magdalena Mountains of New Mexico, and you stand 10,783 feet above sea level. You can look east across the valley of the Rio Grande. But people generally look west, to the San Mateo Mountains and the skies above them. It is there, now, that clouds are beginning to build.

If you have traveled in Arizona or New Mexico in summer, you have seen such clouds. They are the products of the annual monsoon season, when warm, wet air slides north from the Gulfs of Mexico and California to drench the Southwest deserts. Beginning as benign cumulus puffballs, the clouds darken and swell until the whole sky glowers. Then a flash. A splintered pitchfork sparks from cloud to ground. You count: one thousand one, one thousand two. You hear the boom - no, feel it, as if someone had set off dynamite in your bones.

"Lightning is so hard to study," says William Winn, chairman of the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. "It's erratic. Brief. You don't know when it's going to happen."

No, you don't. The sky, is cloudless the morning I pull into Socorro, home to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, which runs Langmuir. But the forecast is for afternoon thundershowers. At the Socorro Municipal Airport, Langmuir pilot Arnold Ebneter is hoping the storms will materialize so he can go to work.

"This is a Schweitzer 845," Ebneter says, showing me an aircraft as graceful and delicate as origami. Most summer afternoons, Ebneter pilots the Schweitzer into the hearts of thunderstorms, so that instruments can relay data down to Langmuir. To my next question, he answers, "Well, no, I don't think I am crazy."

I wonder about that as I drive the winding road up South Baldy. Langmuir was built here in 1963, the site chosen for its altitude, obviously, and because the Magdalenas spawn a steady procession of monsoon-season thunderstorms.

"They're respectable storms," says Bill Winn. He's been a researcher at Langmuir for almost 30 years, its chairman for 14. "But they're small, isolated. That makes them a little easier to study."

Langmuir has the cheerful cluttered look of a college dorm. Budding electrical engineers, physicists, and meteorologists from around the country come here to perform research. For a phenomenon that is common - there are an estimated 40 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the United States each year - lightning keeps its secrets remarkably well.

"We really don't understand what causes lightning to propagate," Winn says. "It may be that we understand less about thunderstorms than we do about the moon."

I want to see a project I've heard about, in which Langmuir researchers trigger lightning. Two students take me out to a knoll. A circle of bottle rockets stands ready. When a thunderstorm comes close enough to charge the air, the rockets are fired off, each trailing a wire behind it. The rockets trigger lightning that strikes the tips, and electricity shoots down the wire to be measured by instruments in an underground bunker - where the students have wisely holed up, too.

The students want to show off their expertise. I want to see pyrotechnics. But the clouds massing to the west turn out to be peevish and indecisive, unwilling to build into anything interesting. No rockets will be fired today. Arnold Ebneter will not fly. The students head back to the lab, and I drive down the mountain.

It's dusk by the time I'm back in Socorro. Then, of course, it happens. To the west, above the Magdalenas, clouds gather, dark and dire. There is a sky-filling flash, as if all of New Mexico has stuck its finger in a light socket. Boom. I hope the people on South Baldy are enjoying the show. I am. It's another reminder from the universe: You don't know me.

Langmuir Laboratory welcomes visitors during daylight hours mid-June to mid-August. The laboratory is 30 road miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, via U.S. 60 and Forest Rd. 235 (high-clearance vehicles recommended for the last 10 miles). (505) 835-5423 or
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Title Annotation:Langmuir Laboratory
Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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