How to ... know when lightning is about to strike

  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 1:38 AM

Beautiful but deadly, cloud-to-ground lightning kills on average 100 people or so in the United States annually.

Photo: BILL MARCHEL Special to the Star Tribune,

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A lot of people think our chance of being struck by lightning equals that of winning the lottery. But that’s not true. According to various sources, 80 to 100 people in the United States die each year from being struck by lightning, and many more are injured. Compare that with the 18 Americans who won the Powerball in 2013.

One National Weather Service study looked at data from 2006 to 2012. Researchers found that most lightning deaths occurred during outdoor activities such as fishing, camping, boating, soccer and golf. Fishing topped the list.

Although lightning can be captivating and dazzling to watch, it is obviously powerful and deadly. Those who frequent the outdoors should stay aware of approaching storm fronts. Remember that lightning can strike far ahead of a distant storm cloud, even though the sky above might be clear.

Certain signals can alert you that lightning is about to strike. Objects such as golf clubs or fishing rods might start to buzz or crackle. Your skin could tingle, and the hair on your arms may stand on end. This is caused by a buildup of positive charges — you and your gear are now acting as lightning rods.

Anglers casting for fish might find their line doesn’t settle to the water when a thunderstorm is nearby.

That happened to me a few years ago. A friend and I were casting for bass on a summer afternoon as a towering thundercloud loomed on the western horizon. At one point I made a long cast to a promising spot. My lure splashed into the water, but I stared in amazement as my line stayed suspended 15 feet in the air. I shook my fishing rod back and forth, and eventually the line settled to the water.

“I don’t like the looks of that,” I said to my fishing buddy.

We immediately stopped fishing and began the 10-mile or so trek to the boat landing, burying the throttle. We didn’t make it in time. A ferocious thunderstorm descended upon us, forcing us to seek shelter in the woods of a secluded bay. Several bolts of lightning hit so close, we had no time to brace for the thunderclap.

The lesson was clear: Allow plenty of time to get to safety.

It’s always best to move indoors during a thunderstorm or take refuge in a vehicle. Anglers in particular should allow extra time to get off the lake. Once indoors, stay away from appliances, metal pipes and faucets. Don’t talk on a land-line telephone or use hand-held appliances.

If shelter is not available, avoid objects that stand out from their surroundings — think tall trees and telephone poles. When caught in the open, move to a low area, crouch down with your head as low as possible, touching the ground only with your feet. Don’t lie down. Do not touch metal objects like fences, golf clubs, umbrellas or fishing rods.

I’ve always liked the golfers’ adage when they see a lightning storm approaching: “Remember, Mother Nature can hit a two iron.”

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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