Weather Library > Lightning Safety: The Myths and the Basics

By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
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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.

Lightning strikes a treeYou'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.

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:

Stay Inside

Lightning hits Chicago skyscrapersThe 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.

Facts and Tips
Small metal objects do not attract lightning.
Lightning doesn't always strike the tallest object.
Lightning can reach far away from a nearby thunderstorm and strike ground.
If you can see lightning or hear thunder, you are in an immediate danger zone for a lightning strike.
Especially during the summertime, lightning activity can suddenly begin in areas of rain even if no lightning or thunder has yet occurred.
When planning any outdoor events, watch the weather forecast up to the day of the activity. Take precautions if any chances for thunderstorms are in the forecast.
During the summertime, keep an eye on the skies. Watch for development of large, towering clouds or shafts of rain. When in doubt, head for cover.

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.

Lightning over a highway

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.

If Outdoors:

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:
  • Raindrops or hail: Rain of any intensity (but more so with heavy rain) may signal the presence of a thunderstorm cloud directly overhead, even if it has not yet produced any lightning or thunder. Large, 'fat' raindrops are ominous, telltale signs of a towering cloud that has the potential to produce a lightning strike at any second.
     
  • Audible thunder or visible flashes: If you can see lightning or hear thunder at all, you are within range of the next strike.
     
  • Large, towering clouds: Cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) clouds can develop rapidly overhead, even among pleasant-looking skies, sometimes leaving no 'dark sky' appearance that often otherwise precedes a thunderstorm. A growing cumulonimbus cloud's upper edges will usually look hard and rounded, like cauliflower, as it protrudes skyward:

    Cumulonimbus Cloud

    Numerous cumulonimbus clouds often develop in clusters and lines (rows), so a cloud like this appearing in the distance signals the potential for another one to pop up or pass directly overhead.
     

  • Static on an AM radio: Distinctive crackling and popping sounds on an AM radio indicate that lightning is occuring in your area.
     
  • Lightning Detector Alarms: Several handheld lightning detectors are on the market that sound an alarm when lightning occurs within a set distance. These battery-operated detectors, priced at around $200, are commonly used by personnel at golf courses, pools, parks and beaches. If your job or pasttime involves large amounts of time outdoors, a portable lightning detector could be a good investment.
      Storms on Radar
  • Storms on weather radar: Thunderstorms show up on Doppler weather radar as red, orange and/or yellow blobs (as in the sample at right). Real-time weather radar is widely available on the Internet, and is shown periodically on The Weather Channel.

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:
  • 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'
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:
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:

  • Burns
  • Temporary or permanent hearing/vision loss
  • Nervous system damage
  • Muscle, ligament or bone injuries (from violent electrically-induced muscle contractions)
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:
  • 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.
A lightning strike can seriously alter your life as you know it. In other words, go with your best bet: Play it safe.

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Related topics:

What happens when lightning strikes a house?
Lightning's impact to houses that are hit directly.
Lightning Protection Systems
What protection systems do and don't do.
Lightning and Trees
The effects of lightning strikes to trees.
Lightning and Ipods, Walkmans and headphones
Will wearing an Ipod and headphones attract lightning?

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