It was a bright and clear Monday morning when I unlocked the door to the office. We had a huge thunderstorm the night before, and as I walked in something was different, there was a different smell in the air that took me a minute or two to identify. It was ozone! My steps quickened as I walked back to the computer room in the back where most of the employees of our small software firm worked.
When I entered the room, the smell of burnt electronics filled my nostrils and I stood there in shock. The building must have taken a direct hit from a lightning bolt during the night. It had passed completely through our industrial strength surge protector and had shorted out our development minicomputer, as well as half a dozen high-end CRT terminals.
It would be a couple of days to get the new equipment in place, but thankfully nobody was hurt. Fortunately, we had the foresight to keep offsite backups of our development and operating software, otherwise the whole company would have been dead in the water.
That morning was a very sobering one, with us realizing how much power a lightning strike has and how much we each need to know about lightning and how to stay safe when it is nearby.
HOW LIGHTNING FORMS
Lightning is formed in cumulonimbus clouds, those tall fluffy clouds we refer to as thunderheads. The extremely tall nature of this type of cloud, up to 25,000 feet above sea level, allows updrafts of warm moist air to move up until the cold at higher altitudes causes the moist air to cool and start to fall in the form of a downdraft.
At the top of this circular route, the moist air turns to ice and eventually hail. As more and more ice and hail particles form, they bounce off of each other giving more and more of them negative charges. When enough of these negative charges gather at the bottom of the cloud, a lightning bolt can form which then travels to the ground by its attraction to the positive charges in the earth.
WHAT LIGHTNING CAN DO
As mentioned above, lightning is the most powerful force in nature and it can do serious damage to anything that it strikes. Electrical appliances that are in the grounding path of a lightning strike will be short-circuited or burned out. Trees, lumber, or anything with significant moisture in it, will immediately boil and explode.
People struck by lightning may or may not be killed or injured, depending on how well they were grounded at the time of the strike. Lightning also does not have to strike an object directly to damage it. The current may flow along the ground or along wires or pipes from the initial strike and then hit something a short distance away.
HOW TO GET ADVANCED WARNING
There is only one way to be safe in a lightning storm, and that is to not be out in the open when it strikes, but inside of some form of shelter that will channel any electrical strike down into the ground. Lightning can strike from as far away as 10 miles or more, even when no storm clouds are visible in the sky. There are warning signs that we can use to get to safety before a strike occurs.
Watch for clouds that are growing very quickly or when a cloud gets much darker at its base or if it is getting very tall. The darkness comes from the increased level of moisture in the cloud and the height indicates the presence of the updraft and downdraft cycle that forms the ice crystals.
Large, fat drops of rain are another indication that a thunderstorm is brewing. It also indicates that the drops are getting bigger through the up and down cycle.
Audible thunder is another indicator of lightning, sometimes still in the clouds, but often striking some distance away. The 30-30 rule will help you here. If the time between the moment you see the flash of the lightning strike and you hear the thunder is less than 30 seconds, then the lightning is too close for you not to be seeking shelter. The second 30 is the number of minutes, at a minimum, you should wait before you decide to leave your shelter.
Static or popping sounds on an AM radio are also good indicators of too much static electricity in the air which could become lightning. When a strike is imminent, this static may also manifest itself in the form of a tingling sensation, the hair on your arms or head standing up, or a soft buzzing or hissing sound.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM A LIGHTNING STRIKE
The best form of shelter is a substantial building with metal wiring or pipes that connect to an electrical ground and will therefore channel any electrical strike down into the earth. Open structures like picnic pavilions, bus shelters or tents that do not have metal connected to ground will not provide adequate protection; you need the mass and the grounding of metal in the structure for the immense power in the lightning bolt to flow to ground in the earth and not into you or any electrical gear nearby.
Regardless of whether you are taking shelter inside a building or a vehicle, you should avoid touching anything metal which could conduct the lightning into you rather than letting it flow to the electrical ground. Non-wired devices such as cell phones or cordless razors or can openers that are not wired to the ground are safe to use.
Avoid water pipes, faucets, and anything that is part of the wired conductive circuit in the house to avoid attracting the charge if the lighting strikes the structure. Avoid areas where excessive moisture may be present, such as a large concrete patio, sidewalks, or sump pumps. Avoid walls where wiring may be in place, as lightning may jump from one path, such as electrical wiring, to another path in the house, such as plumbing to reach the ground.
The next best shelter, especially if you are not near an appropriate building, is an automobile that has a metal roof. Although the wheels will prevent the charge from flowing directly into the earth the charge will normally jump out of the vehicle and into the earth anyway. Open vehicles like convertibles or vehicles with soft shell tops like golf carts or ATVs will not provide adequate protection. Roll the windows up on the vehicle and do not touch any metal parts. Wireless devices like cell phones, that are not connected to the vehicle are safe to use, but not if they are plugged into the vehicle via a charger or USB connector.
Whether in a structure or in a car, you should turn off all electrical devices to reduce the risk of their being damaged should a lightning strike occur. If you are in a vehicle and lightning strikes, you should check to make sure no damage has been done, such as a leak in the fuel system, which could cause a fire if another strike happens nearby or if an electrical spark is created by something shorting out.
WHAT IF SOMEONE GETS HIT?
If someone gets hit by a lightning strike, and they are not killed, they will likely be in need of immediate CPR. The current standard for giving CPR is to first make sure you and the person are safe; next, give 30 chest compressions followed by two rescue breaths, and then repeat until they recover. First aid for burns may also be needed if the person has second or third degree burns, either from the strike or from electrical devices. And, of course, always treat any injured person for shock.
GIVE A LITTLE RESPECT
So, as you can see, we need to give lightning the respect that it deserves. Keep an eye out for the signs that a storm or strike may be coming. Get to a sheltered location as soon as possible rather than doing the lightning crouch or looking for a ditch to lay in. And learn to do CPR so you can help someone who does get struck
DON’T USE THE LIGHTNING CROUCH
The National Weather Service used to recommend using the lightning crouch if you are stuck out in the open when lightning strikes. It made that recommendation because it felt the crouch minimized your likelihood of being the point that lightning would strike. However, in 2008, it changed that advice because they found that it didn’t matter. It decided to base its recommendation on providing a significant level of safety, which the crouch did not provide. Your best course of action is to get out of the dangerous situation by doing the following: > Plan ahead. (That includes knowing where you’ll go for safety) > Listen to the forecast. > Cancel or postpone activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast. > Monitor weather conditions. > Take action early so you have time to get to a safe place. > Get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before threatening weather arrives. > If you hear thunder, get to the safe place immediately.
LIGHTNING MYTHS AND FACTS
MYTH: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
FACT: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year.
MYTH: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
FACT: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.
MYTH: Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.
FACT: Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, not the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with Fiberglas shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don’t lean on doors during a thunderstorm.
MYTH: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted.
FACT: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning myths.
MYTH: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
FACT: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried.
MYTH: If you are in a house, you are 100 percent safe from lightning.
FACT: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying away from corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.
MYTH: If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter.
FACT: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or lifelong injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.
MYTH: Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones, MP3 players, watches), attract lightning.
FACT: Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter and don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it, so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.
MYTH: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, I should lie flat on the ground.
FACT: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.