Lightning Safety

Posted: July 10, 2013, 10:00 am by bmiller

When Old Man Winter finally decides to let the warmer weather take over, many of us will head outside for spring and summertime fun.  However, with thunderstorms almost common place during the late spring and summer season, it’s important for us to review and remember important lightning safety tips.

First off, lighting occurs as a means of equalizing a thunderstorm's charge separation (see image below, courtesy of NOAA). There are four types of lightning: cloud to ground (most harmful to people), cloud to cloud, intra cloud and cloud to air. If you see an approaching thunderstorm, be aware that a storm only needs to be within 10 to 15 miles before lightning becomes dangerous. If you want to estimate lightning distance, do this: when you see a flash, count the number of seconds until you hear thunder and divide by 5. The result is the distance to the lightning strike.

So how do you protect yourself from lightning? First, be mindful of the sky. If it starts getting dark or you observe threatening clouds, chances are you are near a potential thunderstorm. Do not wait until you hear thunder or see a flash to seek shelter. Once inside, make sure to stay away from corded phones, electrical outlets, windows, metal plumbing and concrete floors/walls such as a garage. If you are outdoors, keep moving to find a safe shelter. There is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely cannot find a shelter, stay away from high hills, trees (especially isolated ones), poles and fence rows. Keep in mind baseball dugouts (or similar shelters), highway overpasses, and bodies of water do not protect you from lightning. Cars with hard top roofs do provide safety because the electricity from the lightning will go around the metal frame into the ground; therefore, do not lean against car doors during a thunderstorm. 

There are many common sayings regarding lightning that are actually myths. The most famous of them all is “lightning never strikes twice.” This is indeed a fallacy, especially for tall objects such the Empire State Building which is struck over 100 times a year. Also, “heat lightning” is actually lightning from a very distant thunderstorm.  And due to its distance and the curvature of the earth, the storm's cloud structure may not be visible nor can you hear the thunder.  It is not caused from very hot air, although thunderstorms do typically form on hot, humid days. If an airplane is hit by lightning, chances are the aircraft may get damaged, but it most likely will not crash as planes are designed to handle lightning strikes. Not all sayings are false though. Florida does indeed receive the most lightning strikes of any U.S state because it sits in a seabreeze convergence zone between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the state receives almost 1.5 million strikes per year! 

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