Lightning Safety – Truth or Myth
I have always loved lightning storms. As a child I would try to run outside to see the lightning and count how far away it was. Of course my mother would put a stop to that, IMMEDIATELY, telling me to come inside stating a bunch of “lightning facts” guaranteed to scare any kid into submission. These always worked on my sister and whenever we had lightning storms she would hide inside – while I would try and steal a look out the windows.
Lightning can happen at any time – during snow storms, in hurricane rain bands, in dust storms and forest fires, they are even found in volcanic eruption clouds.
We need to think of lightening safety anytime there is a severe thunderstorm in our area. Lightning happens all over the world, but in the United States there are several states where you are more likely to run into trouble.
Florida leads the list, with double the casualties as the others: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Texas.
Each year, almost 240,000 people are struck by lightning and around 6,000 are killed by lightning strikes around the world. Lightning is the fourth weather killer in the United States, after extreme cold, extreme heat and floods.
In the U.S. around 400 people survive lightning strikes every year but around 70% are left with lifelong injuries and 10% are killed every year. Even if you do not live in the 10 lightning hotspots mentioned above, you are still at risk.
Lightning Trivia That Will Shock You
- Sun’s temperature at the surface is 10,340 degrees Fahrenheit while a single bolt of lightning can hit around 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which can make lightning five times (!) hotter than the Sun.
- The chances of an average person to be hit by lightning in their lifetime are 1 in 3,000. The odds of being struck by lightning in the U.S. in a year are 1 in 700,000.
- Fourth of July is one of the deadliest times for lightning, historically, with the highest rate of lightning strike deaths occurring in July. In summer months, the number of lightning strike incidents skyrocket as more and more people are outdoors
- The Earth’s surface is struck on average by lightning more than 100 times per second, 8 million times per day, and 3 billion times per year.
- A single lightning bolt produces enough energy to keep a 100 Watt light bulb lit for around 3 months.
- Lightning can a blow a tree out by creating enough steam in its core for it to blow up, which is another reason for you to not seek shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm (Unless you want to take your chances on being blasted into oblivion by flying tree shrapnel.)
- One lake in Venezuela hosts an neverending thunderstorm also known as the “Catatumbo lightning” or the “Everlasting Lightning Storm,” with more than 3,500 flashes per hour. Scientists have yet to discover the exact cause of the strange phenomenon 3 miles over the Maracaibo Lake. The most common theory is related to the constant heat and moisture gathered from the surrounding swampy plains colliding with the chilly air coming from the Andes. Other theories claim that the methane from the numerous oil fields below might fuel the phenomenon.
So Today Let’s Examine My Mother’s Scary Lightning Safety Facts and See if They Are Truth or Myth.
⚡ Truth or Myth – If you stand outside to watch lightning, it will “get you”. (My mother’s favorite lightning safety factoid!)
TRUTH – As much as I hate to admit it, mom was right, it’s better not to take chances. Maybe “get you” isn’t the correct term but according to the protocols for the US Army during a lightning storm personnel should NOT: Remain in an open area, remain near metal fences, or tracks, or in tents. Lightning has its own agenda.
⚡ Truth or Myth – Counting between the lightning and thunder clap will tell you how far away the storm is and if it is moving toward or away from you.
TRUTH – Lightning’s distance from you is easy to calculate: if you hear thunder, it and the associated lightning are within range…about 6-8 miles away. The distance from Strike A to Strike B also can be 6-8 miles. Ask yourself why you should NOT go to shelter immediately.
Of course, different distances to shelter will determine different times to suspend activities. A good lightning safety motto is: “If you can see it (lightning) flee it; if you can hear it (thunder), clear it.” A lightning strike at a very close distance will be accompanied by a sudden clap of thunder, with almost no time lapse, and the smell of ozone.
⚡ Truth or Myth – Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice.
MYTH – It hits the Empire State Building about 25 times a year. Some people are extremely susceptible and everyone should practice lightning safety measures – just ask Roy Cleveland Sullivan (February 7, 1912 – September 28, 1983) who was a U.S. park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Between 1942 and 1977, Sullivan was hit by lightning on seven different occasions during his 35 year career and survived all of them, although he lost the nail on one of his big toes, and suffered multiple injuries to the rest of his body.
⚡ Truth or Myth – People are still charged with electricity after they have been hit with lightning and should not be touched.
MYTH – People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge and are safe to handle. You should apply first aid immediately if you are qualified and it is safe for you to do so. Get emergency help promptly. Lightning can affect the brainstem, which controls breathing. If a victim appears lifeless, it is important to begin artificial resuscitation immediately to prevent death by suffocation.
⚡ Truth or Myth – It is dangerous to seek shelter under a tree during a lightning storm.
TRUTH – Trees are frequent conductors of lightning to the ground. Lightning prefers to strike tall, pointed objects, and will often strike the same place more than once. When the discharge occurs, the bolt will tend to follow the shortest, most conductible path to the earth’s surface. Therefore objects that stick out above everything else are more likely to be struck.
Since sap is a poor conductor, its electrical resistance causes it to be heated explosively into steam, which blows off the bark outside the lightning’s path. Lightning strikes are one of the major causes of forest fires. Taking shelter under trees is dangerous – recent studies of lightning victims showed several highly-vulnerable situations and activities, but the one that stood out was taking shelter under trees.
⚡ Truth or Myth – Stay in your car during a storm, the rubber tires will protect you.
TRUTH – but not because of the rubber tires. Lightning has traveled through space…a few inches of rubber mean nothing at all. The “correct” answer appears to be stay in your car because the car acts like a Faraday cage. The metal in the car will shield you from any external electric fields and thus prevent the lightning from traveling within the car. Close your car windows. All bets are off if you are in a convertible or cloth covered vehicle – then seek shelter if it’s safe.
⚡ Truth or Myth – You can be struck by lightning even if you can’t hear the thunder
TRUTH – Our ears can hear thunder claps from 6-8 miles away. Lightning strikes can occur on a day when you cannot see clouds if the storm is farther than that, since lightening can travel up to 10 miles. This is known as “A Bolt from the Blue.” Wait a minimum of 30 minutes before resuming activities after a thunder storm.
⚡ Truth or Myth – You should not talk on the telephone during a thunder and lightning storm. (Another one of my mother’s lightning safety factoids)
PARTIALLY TRUE – According to Ronald L. Holle, a weather consultant and former meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, “Corded phones are extremely dangerous during a storm. Home phone lines are protected with surge devices, but these defenses can be overwhelmed should lightning hit a nearby power pole.
Someone dies every few years while talking on a phone during a lightning strike.” Portable (cordless) and cell phones are safe to use during a thunderstorm.
Telephones, modems, computers and other electronic devices can be damaged by lightning, as harmful over-current can reach them through the phone jack, Ethernet cable, or electricity outlet.
⚡ Truth or Myth – You should unplug your computer during a storm.
TRUTH – But, not during the storm. Electronic devices should be unplugged before a storm arrives. It’s a good idea to protect electronic equipment — stereos, TVs, computers, etc. — with surge protectors. Good-quality ones typically cost between $50 and $100.
Like the surge protection built into houses, however, they don’t offer 100% protection. Unplugging devices before a storm is the best approach.
⚡ Truth or Myth – If you are caught in a field during a thunder and lightning storm you should lie flat.
MYTH – according to Lightning Safety for Organized Outdoor Athletic Events you should evacuate to a safe site if at all possible. SAFE evacuation sites include:
a.) Fully enclosed metal vehicles with windows up.
b.) Substantial buildings.
c.) The low ground; ditches, trenches. Seek cover in clumps of bushes or trees of uniform height.
UNSAFE LIGHTNING SHELTER AREAS include all outdoor metal objects like: flag poles, fences and gates, high mast light poles, metal bleachers, golf cars, machinery, etc. AVOID trees. AVOID water. AVOID open fields. AVOID the high ground.
If you feel your hair standing on end, and/or hear “crackling noises” – you are in lightning’s electric field. If caught outside during close-in lightning, immediately remove metal objects (including baseball cap), place your feet together with hands on ears to minimize acoustic shock from thunder, duck your head, and crouch down low in baseball catcher’s stance with hands on knees, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet, with your head between or over your knees. Never lie flat on the ground.
As I finish writing this today we are having a hail storm and there is thunder in the distance. I can’t resist looking out the window, just like I was still a kid. The draw is irresistible!
My mother’s final thunder safety factoid was to “get away from those windows!” which I could never manage to do. She was certain that the lightning would get me, even through a window.
Thankfully, I can call that one a MYTH, lightning cannot travel through glass to get you and I can still watch those beautiful storms, even if my mother’s voice is in my head.
Here are some Personal Lightning Safety Tips from The U.S. National Lightning Safety Institute
“Everyone needs to have a plan for their safety when a thunderstorm occurs and to commence it as soon as the first lightning or thunder is observed. This is important, since lightning can strike without rain actually falling. If thunder can be heard at all, then there is a risk of lightning. The safest place is inside a building or a vehicle. Risk remains for up to 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder. To avoid being struck by lightning, you should seek shelter when you hear even the faintest thunder. Some of the best places to take refuge are enclosed buildings, or cars and buses (but don’t touch the metal!). In case there are no safe spaces nearby, bend into a crouching position until there is a break in the storm. Isolated trees, telephone booths, and open structures like gazebos or porches make poor lightning shelters. If there is a tall object nearby, move as far away as possible – at least 2 meters (7 ft). Standing next to tall isolated objects like poles or towers makes you vulnerable to secondary discharges coming off those objects.”
Teach this safety slogan:
“If you can see it, flee it; if you can hear it, clear it.”
And other websites for more information:
- http://www.woodalls.com/articledetails.aspx?articleID=1149913 Woodall’s Be Prepared Before Lightning Strikes
- https://weather.com/safety/thunderstorms/news/2019-06-13-lightning-safety-tips Weather.com’s Lightning Safety Tips
- http://www.woodtv.com/dpp/weather/What_to_do_before_during_and_after_a_thunderstorm_715578 WoodTv – How to Prepare for a Thunderstorm
- http://www.consumerwarningnetwork.com/2010/06/10/the-truth-myth-of-lightning-strikes-get-off-the-phone-out-of-the-shower/ Consumer Warning Network
- http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/education/svrwx101/thunderstorms/ Severe Weather 101