Since water supposedly conducts electricity, why aren't people from coast to coast electrocuted when lightning strikes the ocean? We ask this since there is a slurry of revelers below the windows of our apartment who regale themselves in the pool at night after closing hours when we're trying to sleep. We've tried everything from asking nicely for them to pipe down to posing as a security guard and warning the drunkards. To no avail. What would be the outcome of the sauced slew if someone were to, say, plug in an electrical device, attach it to an extension cord, and throw it into the water?
-- Sleepyhead, via e-mail
Assuming the pool isn't the size of the Pacific, you've actually got two different questions here. But we can understand; you're probably a little woozy from lack of sleep. First, we'll deal with the louts in the pool. Personally, we'd move, but if you're fed up enough and figure a jury would have to consider it justifiable homicide, then you've got a workable plan. Water is a good conductor of electricity. When the charge hits the agua, if there is no nearby grounded object (a person touching the plumbing, say), the charge disperses in all directions. The farther it travels, the weaker it gets. Depending on the size of your pool, a 120V appliance would have enough current force to fricassee all your rowdy neighbors. People have been killed in pools as a result of shorts in the underwater lighting systems, so a toaster should do the trick too.
You'll be foiled if you use a ground fault interrupter outlet or an appliance that automatically shuts itself off when a short's detected. But, hey -- rather than ruining a perfectly good household gadget, why not cut the appliance off the cord and just throw in the cord? Guaranteed to do the job. And as we always say when we believe we could be arrested as accessories before the fact, when they put the cuffs on you, forget you ever heard my name. Or Grandma. Or the elves. We already are having trouble remembering yours.
If you throw a toaster into the Pacific, all you'll get is wet bread. If lightning strikes the Pacific, it's highly unlikely it would do any harm at all unless it hits a strike point that's somehow grounded. Or it hits a person. A sailboat would be a sitting duck for a lightning bolt. So would a sitting duck, for that matter. But with no grounded path to follow, the current in the bolt, again, would simply fade away. Nobody's done the measurements, but several lightning specialists estimate that the current from the average bolt that hits the water dissipates within a mile of the strike point.