When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors

This past week was Lightning Safety Awareness Week, an annual campaign by the National Weather Service to spread awareness about the dangers of lightning and how you can protect yourself. So here are some interesting facts and tips on lightning safety...

STATISTICS AND INFORMATION:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that on average, lightning kills 40 to 50 Americans every year, but strikes several hundred a year who survive. NOAA says that an average American has a 1 in 12,000 chance of being struck by lightning in a lifetime. Most lightning strikes are not fatal, but can lead to nerve damage and burns. Not all lightning strikes are direct. Some people are struck when lightning strikes a nearby object and travels through the ground.

Lightning is lazy, in a manner of speaking. Electricity follows the path of least resistance, which is why lightning so often strikes tall objects. They are closest to the cloud base and are therefore "easier" to strike.

There is no such thing as "heat lightning." Heat lightning is commonly referred to as lightning that is far away and silent on a hot summer day or night. Isolated thunderstorms are common on hot summer days, but if you live in a flat location, you can easily see a distant thunderstorm near the horizon, but light travels much farther than sound, so "heat lightning" is just a thunderstorm so far away that you can't hear the thunder.

See the attached links for some pictures and information on different kinds of lightning, including volcano lightning and the elusive ball lightning.

OUTDOOR SAFETY:

The saying goes, "When thunder roars, go indoors," as shown on the lightning hat I'm wearing in the attached photo. It's the simplest way to stay safe in the event of lightning nearby. If you're close enough to hear thunder, you're close enough to get struck by lightning. Taking shelter in a secure and enclosed structure or vehicle is the best thing you can do. If lightning strikes the building or vehicle, it will travel through the structure, normally not harming any people inside. There are some indoor dangers, however. See below.

Also when outdoors, be aware of attending large events like sports games and summer festivals. These normally take place in large open venues when humans are often among the tallest objects and are very susceptible to a lightning strike. Most schools and major sporting events will postpone events until the storm passes. After the storm has passed, it's best to wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before resuming play.

The worst place you can ever be in a thunderstorm is on the water, even if it's a small lake. Fishermen are among the most common people to be struck by lightning. Similar danger to anyone on the beach or in a field.

INDOOR SAFETY:

Generally speaking, being indoors is the safest place you can be from lightning, however, there are some rare dangers to be aware of.

Lightning can strike electrical poles or telephone wires and travel through the cables into a home. In rare cases, lightning may do so and make a connection to any appliance plugged into your outlets, like a computer, cell phone on a charger, or land line telephone. The result is usually a destroyed or fried appliance with burnt wiring. If you are in contact with one of these electrical devices, you can be severely hurt by the lightning strike. These same dangers apply to a car being struck by lightning and the lightning can potentially travel through a car's phone charger.

Lightning can also strike the ground and potentially travel through water pipes. It is best to avoid running water during a thunderstorm for the same reasons as above. Lightning can travel through running water and right out of a faucet or shower head.

Lastly, it's generally okay to leave windows open during a thunderstorm, but there have been very rare cases of lightning striking someone standing near a large open window.

It is extremely rare to fall victim to a lightning strike indoors, but it is possible. Some parts of the world have homes that are less advanced and are not well enclosed so indoor lightning dangers are more serious, but this is normally not an issue in the United States.

EXTRA INFORMATION:

There are several links attached on the right referring to better resources for teaching kids or adults about lightning safety from the NWS. I've also attached some more fun resources for learning about different kinds of lightning you may have never encountered, including a news story from my old station WLUC in Marquette where I met a couple who had ball lightning fly through their home.


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