7 ways to stay safe when lightning hits
- Article by: RUSSELL MCLENDON
- Mother Nature Network
- July 4, 2012 - 5:00 PM
Lightning doesn't have an off-season, but the National Weather Service focuses its safety efforts in summer because that's when problems tend to multiply. Warm weather not only helps spawn thunderstorms, but it also draws people outside -- setting the stage for more lightning-related injuries and deaths.
Most U.S. lightning deaths occur during outdoor leisure activities such as camping, fishing and golf. Anyone can be hit -- even in the same place twice, despite a common myth -- but the odds aren't equal. More than 80 percent of U.S. lightning victims are men, which experts attribute more to behavioral patterns than genetics. Most lightning is avoidable if you heed its warnings.
Be on the lookout. The simplest step is to avoid thunderstorms in the first place. Storms can pop up suddenly during summer, so it's a good idea to check weather forecasts often before going out. Be especially wary of hitting the water in vessels when bad weather is brewing, because a storm might explode before you can get back to land.
Take charge of the situation. There are two types of cloud-to-ground lightning: negative flashes that link a storm's negatively charged interior to positively charged ground below, and positive flashes that connect a storm's positive top to negative ground farther away. The latter can strike about 10 miles outward from a storm, which is why it's unwise to delay your retreat until you actually see clouds or feel rain.
Don't ignore a fair warning. Thunder is the noise lightning makes as it rips through air, causing it to rapidly heat and expand. Human ears can typically hear thunder up to 10 miles away from a lightning bolt. Because that's also how far lightning can reach from its parent storm, if you hear thunder while you're outdoors, you're in danger. Head quickly for a safe shelter, ideally without holding any metal objects such as umbrellas or golf clubs that could make you a target.
Be closed-minded. Keep in mind that not all shelter is the same. Trees are a terrible option, for example, since their height attracts lightning. The NWS suggests either a "substantial building" -- fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, with plumbing or wiring -- or an enclosed metal vehicle. Avoid carports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents, baseball dugouts, sheds and greenhouses. Unsafe vehicles include golf carts, convertibles, motorcycles and others with open cabs.
Keep a low profile. If you can't reach a building or a car, get away from tall trees, flagpoles, power lines and other vertical structures that might attract lightning, especially if they contain metal. Avoid becoming a lightning rod by crouching low to the ground, but don't kneel, sit or lie down. Touch the ground as little as possible; don't even put your hands on it. If possible, keep looking for a suitable shelter.
Don't forget pets. Don't leave dogs or other pets outside if a thunderstorm is expected, and don't let them seek refuge in a doghouse, open barn or other vulnerable structure.
Think outside the box. You're not totally safe from lightning in an enclosed building. There are several ways lightning can sneak inside, such as phone lines, electrical wires, water pipes, doors and windows. Use cordless phones or cellphones if you must talk during a storm, and wait until the storm passes to take a shower or bath. You can protect electronic devices by unplugging them in advance, but it's risky to do so during a storm because you could be shocked in the process.
© 2013 Star Tribune