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Thunderstorms and Lightning

Photo of severe lightning storm at night. On average, lightning kills 60 to 80 Americans each year making it the second most dangerous severe weather event while flooding is number one. And 80% of all lightning deaths are male. However, only ten percent of persons struck by lightning die, with cardiac arrest essentially being the only immediate cause, other than from a secondary cause such as a fall or collision with a rock after being struck first. The surprising low percentage of deaths is explainable by the extremely short time lightning is in contact with a human body - milliseconds. Of the hundred others who are struck by lightning annually and survive, many incur debilitating lifelong injuries, especially to their neurological functions.

Based on reported data, the odds that people living in America will be struck by lightning are about one in 700,000. Including the additional estimated deaths and injuries that go unreported puts the odds at 1 in 240,000. The odds that you will be struck in your lifetime are one in 3,000, while your chance of being affected by someone who has been struck is 1 in 300. Those that live where there are numerous thunderstorms and who spend a lot of time outdoors are at much higher risk. From 1990 through 2003, the most lightning deaths each year occurred in Florida - twice as many as in any other state - followed by Texas, Colorado, Ohio and North Carolina.

When lightning will strike is completely unpredictable. It can unleash a bolt tem miles ahead of a storm. Because people typically do not take precautions before a storm or in the period shortly after it leaves, these times are the most dangerous. Lightning can strike even when the skies are blue. Because every bolt originates in a storm cloud, one can exit from a concealed cloud (e.g., a cloud behind a mountain ridge) and literally streak sideways to hit something miles away. There is no safe interval between one bolt and the next; the second may follow almost immediately. The distance between one lightning strike and the next in a sequence of strikes can be six to eight miles. When you can hear thunder, even distant thunder, the next lightning bolt could still strike you.

Excerpts taken from "Thunderstorms - Why You Shouldn't Get Caught In One," Explore!, Volume 15, Number 3, 2006.

Terminology

Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a thunderstorm hazard.
  • Thunderstorm - Sometimes called an electrical storm, is a local storm, invariably produced by a cumulonimbus cloud and always accompanied by lightning and thunder, usually with strong gusts of wind, heavy rain, and sometimes with hail.
  • Lightning - Or lightning bolt, is a discharge of atmospheric electricity, accompanied by a flash of light, commonly from one cloud to another, but sometimes from a cloud to the earth.
  • Thunder - The sound produced by electricity (lightning) passing rapidly through the atmosphere.

Remember the following thunderstorm safety guidelines for lightning as noted in the book "Shattered Air" by Bob Madgic.
  • All thunderstorms produce lightning and are dangerous.
  • The outdoors is the most dangerous place to be during a lightning storm. At the first indication of an impending storm, go inside to a completely enclosed building (not a carport, open garage or covered patio) or into a hard-top vehicle.
  • Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall, and can travel sideways for up to 10 miles.
  • If you hear thunder you are in danger from lightning.
  • If the air starts buzzing and your hair bristles, you are in immediate danger and should adhere to the guidelines below.
  • If caught outdoors, seek the lowest point and be the lowest point. Do not be the tallest or second tallest object during a lightning storm. Avoid tall trees (be at least twice as far from a tall tree as the height of the tree). If in an open area, crouch down on the balls of your feet.
  • Avoid small caves, tall trees, rock enclosures and outcroppings, "chimneys" on the side of rack walls - each can become a death trap if lightning strikes in the vicinity. (A large cave can offer safety but only if one stays in the middle away from the walls).
  • Avoid being near or touching any metal.
  • If with a group, stay several yards away from other people.
  • Get out of water, and out of small boats and canoes. If caught in a boat, crouch down in the center of the boat away from metal hardware. Don't stand in or near puddles of water.
  • Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter, even with blue sky and sunshine.
  • The safest measures to follow with lightning are awareness and prevention. Avoid being caught in a precarious circumstance.
And always make sure you have a wilderness survival kit with you, even on just an afternoon hike.