See Part 1 of this two-part series on lightning.
Lightning Myths Dispelled
Lightning fascinates us with its beauty and power. It can also be deadly. Of all storm-related events, only floods kill more people each year. Unfortunately, many lightning-related deaths and injuries are the result of a failure to separate fact from fiction.
FACT: You can calculate how far off lightning is by counting the seconds from flash to bang. Because light travels faster than sound, you usually see lightning before you hear it. When you see a bolt, count the seconds (1001, 1002, etc.) until the clap of thunder. Divide the number of seconds by five to figure out how many miles away the lightning is.
FICTION: As long as it’s not raining hard, it’s okay to stay outside. The storm does not have to be overhead, and lightning can strike miles outside of the rain band. John Jensenius, a lightning safety expert with the National Weather Service, tells of a golfer who was busy counting the flash-to-bang seconds when he was hit. The lightning was about three miles away at the time. You are actually in danger if lightning is within six to 10 miles. In the East, the problem with the counting method is that you often can not see for miles, because trees and hills block the view. If you can hear thunder, you ARE within striking distance.
FICTION: Lightning never strikes the same place twice. The Empire State building is struck an average of 23 times each year. The Sears Tower in Chicago is struck by lightning an estimated 40-90 times each year. Roy Sullivan, a forest ranger in the Shenandoah National Park in VA, is in the Guinness Book of World Records for surviving seven lightning strikes. They did occur over a 35 year period in different locations. The lightning knocked him unconscious; blasted him out of his car; burned his eyebrows, shoulders, chest and stomach; and set his hair on fire (twice). There is no method to know exactly where or when a flash will strike. Lightning is often imponderable, unpredictable and random, says Ron Holle, a meteorologist with Vaisala, Inc.
FACT: The only two really safe places in a thunderstorm are a large substantial building and a fully enclosed metal top vehicle. 25% of people killed by lightning are underneath trees. 45% are in open areas like a sports field. Another 14% are engaged in water-related activities like swimming, boating or fishing. (See NOAA guide for coaches and sports officials.) ”A car is a wonderfully safe place to be in a thunderstorm,” according to Holle. In 65 documented cases of direct lightning strikes to vehicles, about half of the people inside were unhurt, and the other half only sustained minor injuries. In a building, the plumbing and wiring channel the current away from you. (Before the advent of indoor plumbing and electricity, houses hit by lightning often burned, since they were not grounded and lightning went through the wood and ignited it.)
FACT: Stay off the phone and computer during a thunderstorm. Corded telephones are the number one source of indoor lightning casualties. Like wired computers, they could put you in direct contact with electricity. In 2006, 256,000 lightning damage claims caused about $882 million in insured losses. To avoid injury and destruction of expensive electrical equipment, pull ALL plugs, including cable connections, before the storm comes. Surge protectors that cost less than about $100 probably do not provide much protection. (See info below on lightning rods.)
FACT: Your odds of being struck by lightning are remote. However, the consequences can be dire. According to the National Lightning Detection Network®, there are about 25 million lightning flashes each year in the U.S. Over the past three decades, on average, of the 400 Americans are struck each year, at least 62 die. Of those who do survive, about three-quarters suffer severe complications and disabilities such as impaired short-term memory. According to Dr. Mary Ann Cooper of the University of Illinois, probably only about 5% of cases involve direct strikes. The rest come through the ground, contact with wiring or plumbing, side flashes from poles or trees, or other mechanisms.
FACT: Men are more likely to be struck by lightning. Men are four times as likely to be killed by lightning as women. Although there haven’t been any studies on the topic, a good guess is that perhaps men are more likely to be employed in outdoor jobs such as roofing, are more likely to engage in outdoor recreation like hiking or golfing, and are less likely to quickly seek shelter because they don’t want to look like a sissy. I asked my husband, who was outside watering the hanging plants during the last thunderstorm, why he thought men were at greater risk. He said “Bolts, volts and dolts are a bad combination.”
Bet Zimmerman is a Certified Environmental Professional and member of the Woodstock Conservation Commission.
Activities to help children learn about lightning safety: http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/kids.htm
Tips for coaches and sports officials: http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/pdfs/CoachGuide.pdf (still references the crouch position as an absolute last resort).
MORE LIGHTNING FACT AND FICTION:
FICTION: To protect yourself from lightning when outdoors, assume the crouch position. Again, the only safe place is inside a substantial building or an enclosed metal vehicle. The crouch option may give people a false sense of security, and is no longer recommended by some lightning experts. It only lowers your height slightly. It is almost impossible to maintain for any length of time. It would make no difference in an indirect strike, which is the cause of injury 95% of the time.
FICTION: Lightning rods attract lightning. See previous article – metal does not attract lightning, it only conducts it. A lightning rods is designed to intercept lightning if it is about to strike your house, and direct it to the ground. It is not designed to protect the house when lightning comes through the wires – in that case you would need a lightning arrestor system. If you want to have a lightning rod installed, use a professional electrician certified by the Lightning Protection Institute. Electricians who are not certified and insured for that kind of work probably wouldn't do it anyway.
FICTION: Rubber tires will protect you from lightning. Rubber does not insulate or protect you from lightning. People are killed on lawnmowers with rubber tires. Lightning contains hundreds of millions of volts and travels many miles through a natural insulator -- air – to reach you. An inch or two of rubber in your shoe or a rubber ground covering is an insignificant obstacle for lightning, according to Ron Holle. In a car, it’s the metal shell that protects you. (This is called the Faraday Cage Effect - you can see a demonstration at the Boston Museum of Science). You are not safe inside a convertible or a golf cart. Many sources say the windows on a car should be rolled up. The main reason for this is to prevent you from leaning your arm against metal.
FACT: If your hair stands on end, you are in imminent danger of being struck by lightning. This is true. However, there is an urban legend out there that three smiling hikers in California snapped a photo (or in some versions, made a videotape) with their hair standing on end, and within seconds one (or two) of them were killed by lightning. In actuality, the hikers in that particular photo left, but several other hikers went to that area, and either one or two of them were killed on that mountaintop the same day.
Be especially wary of towering cumulus clouds with a hammerhead, as they are often the first sign of a developing thunderstorm. As the sun heats the air, pockets of warmer air start to rise, and cumulus clouds form vertically.
Other interesting tidbits:
- Thunder is not referred to as “earsplitting” for nothing. When hikers are found dead with no indication of what killed them, one of the diagnostic signs that they were struck by lightning is ruptured eardrums.
- Roy Williams (the man who was reportedly hit by lightning seven times) committed suicide (via gunshot) at the age of 71. Depression is not uncommon in lightning victims, especially those who are severely injured. See http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/medical.htm
- Over the past decade, like surrounding states, CT ranks in the lower third for number of cloud-to-ground lightning flashes and deaths, with about 3.5 flashes per square mile statewide (compared to Florida with 26); and 2.4 deaths/year.
- According to Vaisala, Inc., lightning is responsible for about 40% of all farm fires, and causes 10,000 forest fires a year in the U.S.
Special thanks to John Jensenius and Ron Holle for their help with these articles. John Jensenius has worked for NOAA for 30 years and is currently the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Gray, Maine Office. Holle is a meteorologist and lightning expert with 36 years at NOAA and 7 years at Vaisala Inc. Vaisala maintains the National Lightning Detection Network®, a database used by many government agencies and insurance companies.