Staying Safe When There's Lightning Around

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Staying Safe When There's Lightning Around

Lightning is great to watch, and makes a superb subject for videos or photographs - from a distance. But it's pretty scary when it strikes nearby, and every year there are news reports of lightning fatalities.

So what are your chances of being struck by lightning?

Fortunately they are pretty slim. But that's probably what the hundred or so people killed by lightning in an averageyear probably thought.

So while you or I are most unlikely to be struck, the consequences are so severe that it's worthwhile taking every precaution to make sure that we don't end up a lightning statistic.

A Few Lightning Facts

  • Although lightning is known from volcanic eruptions and in smoke from very large fires, it is always present in thunderstorms, and thunderstorms can occur anywhere and at any time of year. In the US they are most common in Florida and nearby states, and overall are most frequent from April to July. Lightning fatalities are most common in July, probably because more people are out of doors at that time of year.

  • Lightning is a very high voltage electrical discharge, with its source in a thunder cloud. Most lightning moves between clouds, or from cloud to air. The cloud to ground strikes are rarer, but are the ones to worry about.

  • Apart from floods, lightning causes more deaths than any other severe weather event, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Figures are not precise, but around 100 deaths occur in an average year, while injuries are at least ten times that number.

  • Lightning injuries are most common before and after the storm has passed over - before and after the rain, winds and hail have caused people to take shelter. Another reason is that lightning bolts can travel distances of over 10 miles (16km) from the cloud before hitting the ground.These "bolts from the blue" may arrive before any thunder from the storm can be heard, and even before the storm clouds have been noticed.

  • Deaths and injuries occur most commonly to outdoor workers, hikers, campers, and people involved in outdoor sport or picnics, including sporting teams. Quite often, the victims have delayed finding shelter until the last minute.

More information on lightning can be found at my website,

Deaths and Injuries

A lightning strike is a very short lived, high voltage electrical current, but has different effects to a home or industrial electric shock. Most lightning fatalities are instantaneous through failure of the heart or breathing, or severe nervous damage.

Lightning deaths and injuries can occur in two ways - by a direct strike, or indirectly from being within about 50 yards of the strike. A short-lived electric current can travel through damp soil, wet grass, water, and along fence wires, plumbing or underground cables. This explains deaths or injuries to people who are indoors but in contact with telephones, electrical appliances or plumbing fixtures.

Unfortunately the effects of a non fatal lightning injury are often severe and long lasting - often life changing. They can include impaired mental ability and chronic pain.

But survival is better than the alternative, and immediate first aid after a lightning strike is critical.

The first thing to remember is that the injured person is not "live" - you won't get a shock when you touch them.

Secondly, CPR - cardio pulmonary resuscitation - should always be attempted if the victim has no pulse or is not breathing. A lightning strike can stop either or both of the heart or breathing.

Thirdly, medical attention is necessary, even if the person seems to have recovered.

Reducing The Risk of a Lightning Strike

Many, if not most, lightning casualties are avoidable. The small but real risks can be minimised by making a few small sacrifices to your present enjoyment. The peace of mind you gain will make it worthwhile.

Firstly, move to the safest possible shelter as soon as you are aware of an approaching storm. Careful observation of the weather is a good guide, and lightning detectors are definitely worth considering, particularly if you are responsible for others such as a children's sports team or an outdoor work crew.

In most cases, once you can hear thunder you are within the danger zone, and it's time to move quickly.

Now I know that almost every time an early move to shelter will turn out to be unnecessary, and you may not always get a warm reception for your course of action. But imagine the alternative if half a dozen kids are injured or worse after a lightning strike during a soccer or baseball game.

The best shelter is a fully enclosed building, bearing in mind the easily avoidable risks associated with telephones, electric appliances and plumbing.

Next best is an all metal car with the windows closed - preferably not parked at the top of a hill or under a tall tree.

Probably the third choice would be in a group of small trees - assuming there are taller ones around. Tall trees are high risk, as are isolated structures such as water tanks. Partly open sheds are of dubious value and offer their occupants little protection if struck.

Open spaces are dangerous places to be, and you should have plenty of time to move elsewhere. Being the highest point in a large area is not a good survival strategy.

If however you have no alternative, look for a lower area that is not water logged, squat down on the balls of your feet, with your head down. Don't lie on the ground, and stay away from wire fences.

And once you are safe, just sit back and enjoy the show. ================================================================©2005, Graham McClung. A retired geologist, Graham McClung has had a lifelong interest in the outdoors. And where there's outdoors there's weather. He is the editor of where you can find reviews and advice to help you choose and use your own home weather station.================================================================

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Last update 05/25/2011