Lightning is the MOST UNDERRATED weather hazard. On average, only floods kill more people. Lightning makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces one single bolt or ten thousand bolts.
In the United States, lightning routinely kills more people each year than tornadoes and hurricanes COMBINED. Tornadoes, hail, and wind gusts get the most attention, but only lightning can strike well outside the storm itself. Lightning is usually the first thunderstorm hazard to arrive and the last to leave.
Lightning is an unpredictable characteristic of a thunderstorm – no one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from lightning. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death. Remember, YOU are ultimately responsible for your personal safety, and should take appropriate action when threatened by lightning.
Lightning hits the earth an estimated 100 times per second, or 8.6 million times a day. It is estimated that the U.S. alone receives as many as 20 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year from approximately 100,000
thunderstorms. Lightning kills or injures hundreds of people every year, mainly because the victims are not aware of the danger they face.
Lightning has fascinated and excited humans for as long as they have watched the skies. Meteorologists know the cloud conditions necessary to produce lightning, but cannot forecast the location or time of the next stroke of lightning from a storm. At any moment, there are as many as 1800 thunderstorms in progress somewhere on the Earth, and each is producing deadly lightning.
As the thunderstorm forms, it produces ice in the upper cloud. The formation of ice in a cloud is an important element in the development of lightning. Those storms that fail to produce large numbers of ice crystals may also fail to produce lightning. Strong rising and sinking motions within the cloud are important too, as they enhance collisions among cloud particles causing a separation of electrical charges. Positively charged ice crystals rise to the top of the thunderstorm and negatively charged ice particles and hailstones drop to the middle and lower parts of the storm.
As the differences in charges continue to increase, positive charges rise up taller objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles. The charge can also move up you, causing your hair to stand on end! This is natures way final way of warning you that lightning can strike very soon near you.
The negatively charged area in the storm sends out a charge toward the ground called a step leader. It is invisible to the human eye and moves in steps towards the ground. It takes less than a second for lightning to get close to the ground, and when it does it is attracted by all of the positively charged objects causing a channel to develop. You see the electrical transfer in this channel as lightning. There may be several repeated transfers of electricity within the channel. These are observed as flickering lightning.
35 Years of Lightning Deaths & Injuries
Fatalities, injuries, and damage were compiled and published by NOAA for the years 1959-1994.
1. Location of Incident:
27% Open fields & recreation areas (not golf)
14 % Under trees (not golf)
8% Water-related (boating, fishing, swimming…)
5% Golf / golf under trees
3% Heavy equipment and machinery related
2.4% Telephone related
0.7% Radio, transmitter & antenna related
2. Gender of victims:84% male; 16% female
3. Months of most incidents: June (21%), July (30%), Aug (22%)
4. Days of week of most incidents: Sun. / Wed. / Sat.
5. Time of day of most incidents: 2pm to 6pm
6. Number of victims: One (91%), two or more (9%)
7. Deaths by State, Top Five: FL, MI, TX, NY, TN
8. Injuries by State, Top Five: FL, MI, PA, NC, NY
Before Lightning Strikes…
Keep an eye on the sky. Look for darkening skies, flashes of light, or increasing wind. Listen for the sound of thunder. If Thunder is heard… The Lightning is… 5 seconds after a Flash = 1 mile away 10 seconds after a Flash = 2 miles away 15 seconds after a Flash = 3 miles away 20 seconds after a Flash = 4 miles away 25 seconds after a Flash = 5 miles away 30 seconds after a Flash = 6 miles away
- If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Go to safe shelter immediately!
- Don’t use metal objects like fishing rods, aluminum bats and golf clubs. Golfers and Softball players are particularly good lightning rods.
- Listen to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for the latest weather forecasts.
The 30/30 rule
Any lightning safety plan should incorporate the 30/30 Rule. The 30/30 Rule states that people should seek shelter if the “Flash-To-Bang” delay (length of time in seconds between a lightning flash and its subsequent thunder), is 30 seconds or less, and that they remain under cover until 30 minutes after the final clap of thunder.
A 30 second lead time is necessary prior to a storm’s arrival because of the possibility of distant strikes. A 30 minute wait after the last thunder is heard is necessary because the trailing storm clouds still carry a lingering charge. This charge can and does occasionally produce lightning on the back edge of a storm, several minutes after the rain has ended.
Studies have shown most people struck by lightning are struck not at the height of a thunderstorm, but before and after the storm has peaked. This shows many people are unaware of how far lightning can strike from its parent thunderstorm. DO NOT wait for the rain to start before seeking shelter, and do not leave shelter just because the rain has ended.
When a Storm Approaches…
- Find shelter in a building or car. Keep car windows closed and avoid convertibles.
- Telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Unplug appliances. Avoid using the telephone or any electrical appliances.
- Avoid taking a bath or shower, or running water for any other purpose.
- Turn off the air conditioner. Power surges from lightning can overload the compressor, resulting in a costly repair job!
- Draw blinds and shades over windows. If windows break due to objects blown by the wind, the shades will prevent glass from shattering into your home.
Be a Very Small Target!
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, duck your head, and crouch down low in baseball catcher’s stance with hands on knees
- Squat low to the ground. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible.
- Do not lie flat on the ground — this will make you a larger target!
If you feel your hair stand on end in a storm, drop into the tuck position described above immediately. This sensation means electric charges are already rushing up your body from the ground toward an electrically charged cloud. Minimize your contact with the ground to minimize your injury.
Being outdoors is the most dangerous place to be during a lightning storm. The National Weather Service advises that when you hear thunder or see lightning to quickly move indoors or into a hard topped vehicle and remain there until well after the storm has passed.
Any location is dangerous during a lightning storm; however some areas are more dangerous than others. Some of the riskiest locations include:
- Anywhere near the water:
- Activities on the Beach
- Areas near tall trees:
- The Golf Course
- Picnic Areas
- Hiking Trails
- Isolated tall trees pose the greatest danger!
- High terrains such as hill tops and ridges
- High places such as house roofs during construction
- Open areas like fields
Dangerous situations can arise when big groups of people come together outdoors during a lightning storm. This includes baseball, football, soccer, and tennis games, as well as community fairs and outdoor festivals.
It is important that everyone know some outdoor and indoor safety rules.
Outdoor Safety Rules
Knowing outdoor safety rules can help save your life or that of loved ones.
When lightning approaches, get inside a completely enclosed building. Carports, open garages, storage sheds, metal sheds, and covered patios are not safe shelters.
If no enclosed building is available, get inside a hard-topped, all metal vehicle.
Get out of the water! Get off the beach and out of small boats and canoes. If caught in a boat, crouch down in the center of the boat away from metal hardware. Avoid standing in puddles of water, even if wearing rubber boots. Thunderstorm winds create large waves and turbulent water, so please wear a life jacket!
If you cannot reach shelter, avoid being the tallest object in the area. Do not take shelter under an isolated tree or the tallest trees in the area. If you are in the woods, find shelter under the shorter trees.
If only isolated trees are nearby, crouch on the balls of your feet. A rule of thumb to follow is to stay twice as far away from a tree as it is tall. Don’t lie on the ground.
Avoid caves or overhangs. The ground current from lightning is very strong and can jump the Gap.
Avoid leaning against vehicles and get off bicycles and motorcycles.
Indoor Safety Rules
When lightning strikes a building, house or other structure, it follows metal conductors such an electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines from the structure to the ground. When this process occurs, it usually leaves the inhabitants unharmed.
Once lightning enters the home it can surge through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. It can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring as well as windows and doors. It is important to avoid these conductors during an electrical storm.
Phone use is the leading cause of lightning injuries within the home. Lightning can travel long distances in both phone and electrical wiring, especially in rural areas where other conductors are limited.
Basements should be used with caution during thunderstorms because they usually contain conductors. Avoid contact with washers and dryers since they not only have contacts with the plumbing and electrical systems, but also have an electrical path to the outside through the dryer vent. Concrete floors should also be avoided as they usually contain some form of reinforcement which can easily become electrified by a nearby lightning strike. Avoid bathing during a lightning storm as the household plumbing can carry a deadly current.
Lightning Safety Tips for Inside your Home
A house or other substantial building offers the best protection from lightning. In assessing the safety provided by a particular structure, it is more important to consider what happens if the structure gets struck by lightning, rather than whether the structure will be hit by lightning. For a shelter to provide protection from lightning, it must contain a mechanism for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground. These mechanisms may be on the outside of the structure, may be contained within the walls of the structure, or may be a combination of the two. On the outside, lightning can travel along the outer shell of the building or may follow metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning can follow conductors such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines to the ground.
Avoid Unsafe Shelters!
Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. Many small open shelters on athletic fields, golf courses, parks, roadside picnic areas, schoolyards and elsewhere are designed to protect people from rain and sun, but not lightning. A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout, or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground is not safe. Small wooden, vinyl, or metal sheds offer little or no protection from lightning and should be avoided during thunderstorms.
How Lightning Enters a House or Building
There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: (1) a direct strike, (2) through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure, and (3) through the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.
Stay Safe While Inside
Phone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States. Lightning can travel long distances in both phone and electrical wires, particularly in rural areas. Stay away from windows and doors as these can provide the path for a direct strike to enter a home. Do not lie on the concrete floor of a garage as it likely contains a wire mesh. In general, basements are a safe place to go during thunderstorms. However, there are some things to keep in mind. Avoid contact with concrete walls which may contain metal reinforcing bars. Avoid washers and dryers since they not only have contacts with the plumbing and electrical systems, but also contain an electrical path to the outside through the dryer vent.
Remember Your Pets
You may want to consider the safety of your family pets during thunderstorms. Dog houses are not lightning-safe. Dogs that are chained to trees or chained to wire runners can easily fall victim to a lightning strike.
Protect Your Personal Property
Lightning also causes significant damage to personal property each year. In addition to direct strikes, lightning generates electrical surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike. Typical surge protectors will NOT protect equipment from a lightning strike. To the extent possible, unplug any appliances or electronic equipment from all conductors well before a thunderstorm threatens. This includes not only the electrical system, but also the reception system. If you plan to be away from your home when thunderstorms are possible, be sure to unplug unneeded equipment before you leave.
Summary of Lightning Safety Tips for Inside the Home
· Avoid contact with corded phones
· Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. If you plan to unplug any electronic equipment, do so well before the storm arrives.
· Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry.
· Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
· Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.
If someone is struck by lightning…
- People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge and can be handled safely.
- Call for help. Get someone to dial 9-1-1 or your local Emergency Medical Services (EMS) number.
- The injured person has received an electrical shock and may be burned, both where they were struck and where the electricity left their body. Check for burns in both places.
- Give first aid. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped beating, a trained person should give CPR.
Learn First Aid and CPR
- Take a first aid and CPR course. Next class is schedule for April 22 in the Learning Center!
Information provided by the National Weather Service Kerry Jones, KVII Chief Meteorologist Steve Kersh and American Red Cross.