How To Stay Safe During A Lighting Storm

On a clear Tuesday morning, after a heavy thunderstorm the previous night, I unlocked the office door. As I stepped inside, there was a distinct smell in the air that took a moment to identify—it was ozone. I hastened my steps towards the computer room in the back, where most of our small software firm’s employees worked.

Upon entering the room, a scent of burnt electronics hit me, and I was left in shock. It became evident that the building had been struck by lightning during the storm, bypassing our industrial-strength surge protector and causing damage to our development minicomputer and several high-end terminals.

Replacing the equipment would take a couple of days, but thankfully, no one was injured. We were fortunate to have offsite backups for our development and operating software, preventing a complete standstill for the company.

That morning served as a stark reminder of the power of a lightning strike and the importance of understanding how to stay safe when lightning is in the vicinity.

How Lighting Forms

Lightning originates in cumulonimbus clouds, commonly known as thunderheads. These towering clouds, reaching heights of up to 25,000 feet above sea level, facilitate the movement of warm, moist air through updrafts. As this moist air ascends, it cools at higher altitudes, triggering its transformation into a downdraft.

At the pinnacle of this circular process, the moist air turns into ice and, eventually, hail. The formation of numerous ice and hail particles leads to collisions, resulting in an accumulation of negative charges. Once a sufficient number of these negative charges amass at the bottom of the cloud, it creates the conditions for a lightning bolt to form. This bolt then descends to the ground, attracted by the positive charges present in the Earth.

Lightning is essentially an electrical discharge caused by the separation of positive and negative charges within a cumulonimbus cloud. The initial process involves the updraft of warm, moist air, which cools and falls as a downdraft at higher altitudes. As this process continues, the moisture freezes, creating ice and hail particles. These particles collide, leading to the separation of charges—negative charges on smaller particles and positive charges on larger particles.

The accumulated negative charges at the base of the cloud create an electrical potential difference with the positively charged ground below. When this difference becomes significant, a lightning bolt is triggered to neutralize the charge separation. The bolt follows a path of ionized air, creating the visible streak we recognize as lightning.

Understanding the complex interplay of atmospheric conditions that give rise to lightning helps us appreciate the powerful natural phenomenon and underscores the importance of safety precautions during light storms.

The Impact of Lighting

the impact of lighting
the impact of lighting

As highlighted earlier, lightning stands as one of nature’s most potent forces, capable of inflicting substantial damage upon anything it encounters. Electrical appliances situated in the grounding path of a lightning strike face the risk of being short-circuited or burnt out. Trees, lumber, or items with significant moisture content can undergo immediate boiling and explosive reactions.

When it comes to human encounters, the consequences of a lightning strike vary—individuals may or may not be killed or injured, depending on their level of grounding at the moment of impact. Importantly, lightning doesn’t necessarily have to strike an object directly to cause harm. The electrical current may travel along the ground, wires, or pipes from the initial strike, reaching and affecting objects a short distance away.

Lightning’s destructive potential arises from its ability to discharge a massive amount of electrical energy. When a lightning bolt strikes, it seeks the path of least resistance, and anything in its way may suffer severe consequences. The intense heat generated by the electrical discharge can cause fires, and the accompanying shockwaves can lead to explosive reactions in objects with high moisture content.

Moreover, individuals struck by lightning may experience a range of injuries, from minor to severe, depending on factors such as the directness of the strike and the grounding conditions. Lightning’s capacity to travel along the ground or through conductive materials amplifies its reach, posing a threat not only to the point of impact but also to surrounding areas. Understanding the potential dangers of lightning underscores the importance of safety measures during light storms.

Staying Safe During Lighting Storms

The key to staying safe during a lightning storm is avoiding open areas and finding shelter that can redirect any electrical strikes into the ground. Lightning can strike from distances of up to 10 miles, even without visible storm clouds in the sky. Fortunately, there are warning signs that can help us seek safety before lightning strikes.

Keep an eye out for rapidly growing clouds, darkening at the base, or significant height increase. The darkening is due to increased moisture, while height indicates the presence of the updraft and downdraft cycle forming ice crystals.

Another sign of an approaching thunderstorm is the presence of large, fat raindrops. This not only signals a brewing storm but also suggests that the raindrops are growing larger through the up-and-down cycle.

Listen for audible thunder, which may indicate lightning either within the clouds or striking at a distance. Use the 30-30 rule: if the time between seeing the lightning flash and hearing the thunder is less than 30 seconds, seek shelter immediately. The second 30 is the minimum number of minutes to wait before leaving your shelter.

Pay attention to static or popping sounds on an AM radio, as they can indicate an excess of static electricity in the air, which may lead to lightning. When a strike is imminent, static may also manifest as a tingling sensation, hair standing up, or a soft buzzing or hissing sound. These warning signs can help you take timely precautions and stay safe during a lightning storm.

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Medical banner

Safeguarding Against Lighting Strikes

To protect yourself from a lightning strike, seek shelter in a sturdy building equipped with metal wiring or pipes connected to an electrical ground. This setup channels any electrical strike safely into the Earth. Open structures like picnic pavilions or tents without proper grounding won’t offer sufficient protection. The mass and grounding of metal structures are crucial for directing the immense power of a lightning bolt into the ground rather than posing a risk to you or nearby electrical devices.

Whether you find shelter in a building or a vehicle, avoid touching metal surfaces that could conduct lightning into your body. Non-wired devices like cell phones or cordless razors are safe to use as they lack connections to the ground. Steer clear of water pipes, faucets, and other components of the wired conductive circuit within a house to avoid attracting the charge if lightning strikes the structure. Be cautious around areas with excessive moisture, such as concrete patios, sidewalks, or sump pumps, and avoid walls with wiring where lightning could jump from one path to another.

If an appropriate building is not nearby, an automobile with a metal roof is the next best shelter. While the wheels prevent direct grounding, the charge typically jumps out of the vehicle into the Earth. Convertibles, vehicles with soft shell tops like golf carts, or ATVs do not offer adequate protection. Roll up the windows and avoid touching metal parts. Wireless devices, like cell phones not connected to the vehicle, are safe to use, but avoid using them if plugged into the vehicle through a charger or USB connector.

Whether inside a structure or a vehicle, turn off all electrical devices to minimize the risk of damage in the event of a lightning strike. If in a vehicle during a lightning strike, check for potential damage, such as fuel system leaks, which could pose a fire hazard in the presence of another strike or an electrical spark from a short circuit.

Responding To A Lighting Strike Victim

If someone is struck by lightning and survives, immediate CPR is likely necessary. The current CPR protocol involves ensuring your safety and the person’s safety first. Proceed with 30 chest compressions followed by two rescue breaths, repeating this cycle until the individual shows signs of recovery. Additionally, if the person has second- or third-degree burns resulting from the lightning strike or electrical devices, administer first aid for burns. Always address shock symptoms in any injured person.

Further Guidelines:

  1. Prioritize Safety: Before initiating CPR, ensure the safety of both yourself and the lightning strike victim. Make sure the surroundings are secure from potential hazards.
  2. CPR Technique: Begin with 30 chest compressions, followed by two rescue breaths. Continue this cycle until the person shows signs of recovery or until professional help arrives.
  3. First Aid for Burns: If the lightning strike causes second- or third-degree burns, or if the individual has burns from electrical devices, provide appropriate first aid. This may involve cooling the burn with water and covering it with a sterile bandage.
  4. Shock Management: Attend to any signs of shock in the injured person. Keep them comfortable, elevate their legs if possible, and seek medical assistance promptly.

Being prepared to respond to a lightning strike victim is crucial for their well-being, and following these guidelines can contribute to a more effective and timely intervention.

Lightning Storm Myths and Facts

lightning storm myths and facts
lightning storm 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 fiberglass 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 off 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 the 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 you 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, 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, railings, 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 currents. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Avoid The Lighting Crouch: Updated Safety Guidelines

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The National Weather Service once recommended the lightning crouch for those caught in the open during a lightning storm, believing it minimized the risk of becoming the lightning strike point. However, in 2008, the advice was revised as subsequent research revealed the lightning crouch did not offer a significant level of safety.

Your optimal response is to remove yourself from the hazardous situation by following these steps:

  • Plan ahead. Be proactive in knowing where you can seek safety.
  • Stay informed with the forecast. Monitor weather predictions regularly.
  • Adjust plans in case of thunderstorms. If storms are forecasted, consider canceling or postponing activities.
  • Keep an eye on weather conditions. Be aware of changing weather patterns.
  • Take early action. Ensure you have sufficient time to reach a secure location.
  • Seek shelter in a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle. Do this before threatening weather arrives.
  • Respond promptly to thunder. If you hear thunder, move to a safe place immediately.

These updated guidelines prioritize proactive measures and getting to a secure location as the most effective means of ensuring your safety during a lightning storm.

Concluding

It’s evident that we must treat lightning with the respect it deserves. Instead of relying on ineffective measures like the lightning crouch or seeking refuge in a ditch, prioritize swift action to reach a sheltered location when signs of a storm or strike emerge.

Additionally, acquiring knowledge of CPR is essential, enabling you to assist anyone who may be struck by lightning. Taking these precautions and being prepared enhances overall safety during lightning incidents.

Recommended resources:

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2 thoughts on “How To Stay Safe During A Lighting Storm”

  1. I have a question I was convicted for a non-violent felony over 30 years ago unfortunately I live in one of only two states that after a period of time my 2nd amendment privilege is not restored I’ve been looking into something that I can defend myself, property etc but all I can find is a crossbow which I have and single shot air rifles as you know in a shtf situation one shot most likely is not going to take care of the threat my question is do you know of any multi shot weapons I could possess out there id appreciate any info you have Thanks and keep up the good work we need more like you

    Reply
    • Hello Scott. Unfortunately your options are limited and you could try with a self cocking repeating crossbow or something like the Brocock Pathfinder XR PCP Air Rifle. Even so, your defensive capabilities are still limited and to be honest, I would move to another state if I were in your shoes.

      Reply

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