Weather Library > Lightning Safety: The Myths and the Basics
You're outside working in your yard when you feel the wind pick up slightly. You instinctively look up at the sky to see the familiar dark clouds looming in the distance.
You've still got half the yard to mow, and you're annoyed by the fact that the approaching rain will force you to wait and finish when the lawn dries. So you hurry up and continue cutting grass, finishing just in time for the first sudden flash of bright light and loud crash of thunder that sends the neighborhood running indoors.
You made it inside safely . . . this time. But were you really in that much danger?
It's true that the chances of you being injured or killed by lightning are very small. However, it's wise to exercise a little caution along with some good old-fashioned common sense when thunderstorms are forecast for your area.
The key to lightning safety is simply avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone who has ever been accidentally struck by lightning did nothing to attract the strike to them, they were simply unfortunate to be at the exact spot a lightning strike was already going to occur. Since lightning is generated on too large of a scale (by thunderstorms several miles high and tens of miles wide) to be influenced by small objects on the ground, these lightning victims would have been hit regardless of any metal objects they did or did not have on or near their person.
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So, the focus on protecting yourself from lightning shouldn't be on what type of objects you are wearing, standing by, or carrying, but rather on avoiding the locations where lightning can strike - which, essentially, is anywhere outdoors or in unprotected structures. It's commonly understood, for instance, that you should stay away from trees if you are outside during a storm. There is some merit to that statement, but the truth is that you are still in danger from lightning if you are outdoors at all.
So what should you do to ensure maximum safety? The following are the best ways to protect yourself:
The safest and most obvious place to be in a thunderstorm is indoors. If lightning strikes a house or a building directly, it will tend to follow the available paths to ground, including the electrical wiring, plumbing, cable or telephone lines, antennas and/or steel framework. RIGHT: When lightning hits skyscrapers, the current is diverted safely to ground. The building and its occupants are unaffected.
The fact that houses and buildings have an abundance of grounding paths makes them generally safe lightning shelters, but to ensure maximum safety during a storm:
- Don't use any wired appliance or device. Wireless appliances (cordless phones, razors, etc) are safe to use.
- Stay away from water pipes and faucets. (No baths, showers, etc.)
- Don't stand on a basement floor or patio slab, or anywhere where standing water or excessive moisture is present. These areas are 'ground current' danger zones.
- Stay away from walls where electrical wiring is present. Lightning will occasionally jump through the air inside a house or building to reach a better grounding path, such as from electrical wires to a water pipe.
Structures like bus shelters, outhouses, lean-to shelters, or any small non-metal structure do not provide any lightning protection.
Head for the car
If no structural shelter is available, hard-topped automobiles offer sufficient lightning protection. Vehicles such as golf carts and convertibles do not provide any lightning shelter. Roll up the windows and don't touch any part of the metal frame (like resting your arm on the window) or any wired device in the vehicle (including the steering wheel or plugged-in cellular phone). A direct strike to your car will flow through the frame of the vehicle and usually jump over or through the tires to reach ground. Most lightning incidents to cars result in one or more flat tires and damage to the electrical system, but no injury to the occupants.
If lightning does hit your car, it's a good idea to stop and check the vehicle. It's not uncommon for a strike to ignite fuel and result in a fire or explosion.
You are in equal danger of a lightning injury outdoors regardless of whether or not you are standing near, carrying, or wearing any metal objects. Lightning is a large-scale event that is not influenced by small ojects on the ground, so distancing yourself from small metal objects will not make you safe from lightning. Metal objects like umbrellas, golf clubs, bicycles and fences will attract a lightning channel only if the strike is already a few feet away - in which case you would still experience an injury from being that close to begin with.
Jewelry, spiked shoes, watches or hair berets will do nothing to influence a lightning strike's ground termination. However, if you are hit directly, lightning will usually flow through any metal objects on your person, superheating (even vaporizing) them and causing burns.
If you are caught outside, stay away from tall, isolated objects like trees, flagpoles, or posts. Remember that, contrary to the myth, lightning doesn't always strike the tallest or most conductive object - it can strike anywhere.
Stay away from shorelines, railroad tracks, and metal fences which could bring current from a 'far-away' lightning strike to you. Although still not as safe as being indoors, dense woods provide a little protection due to the large number of trees that decrease the chance of lightning strike to a tree next to you. However in this (and any) case, don't stand close to any of the trees.
Lightning Warning Signs
In addition to the obvious warning of an ominously darkening sky, there are certain conditions that can alert you to a lightning danger before the strikes threaten. You are in a 'danger zone' and need to seek immediate shelter if you experience any of the following:
An Imminent Strike
A close or direct lightning strike will sometimes give you a short warning a few seconds before the event, usually in the form of:
These signs indicate a direct strike may occur within seconds. In most cases, you will not have time to react. However, if you are unable to reach shelter and you experience any of these signs, or if you otherwise feel that you are in immediate danger, assume the following position quickly:
- A soft or loud buzzing, clicking, hissing or cracking sound.
- A tingling sensation
- Hairs on the arm or head standing on end
- Nearby metal objects emitting a soft, blue-white glow called 'St. Elmo's Fire'
Move your feet close together, crouch down, and grab your ankles. Tuck your head down as far as you can. Don't lie flat on the ground.
Even so, this traditionally-recommended 'crouch' position may not prevent injury from a strike (there is no evidence to support it having any effect). Again, your focus should be avoiding getting into such a situation - it's never good to have to consider using such dubious 'last resorts' to begin with.
Lightning strike victims:
Victims of lightning strikes are not always initially in a fatal situation. Typically a lightning strike will cause cardiac and/or repiratory arrest that can be corrected by proper resuscitation (CPR). Many lightning-related deaths occur when the victim does not receive the proper medical attention. If you witness a lightning strike incident, call for help immediately. If you are trained in CPR, administer proper resuscitation if it is necessary. A lightning victim is safe to touch, in other words, they do not retain any 'electrical charge' from the strike.
Other injuries commonly caused by lightning include:
Sometimes (even in the movies) you may hear people casually joke about actually wanting to experience a lightning strike, just to see what it's like. But any lightning victim will tell you that the lifelong after-effects of a strike are no amusement park ride - that is, if you manage to survive. Consider dealing with the following for the rest of your life:
- Temporary or permanent hearing/vision loss
- Nervous system damage
- Muscle, ligament or bone injuries (from violent electrically-induced muscle contractions)
A lightning strike can seriously alter your life as you know it. In other words, go with your best bet: Play it safe.
- Intense, uncurable chronic or steady pain (in various body parts), only manageable with constant painkiller medication
- Chronic headache, dizziness, nausea, seizures and/or vomiting
- Varying degrees of impairment to memory and various cognitive skills
- Vision, hearing, and/or various sensory loss/impairments
- and many more symptoms too numerous to list.
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