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When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
A safe building is one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, such as a home, school, office building or a shopping center. Even inside, you should take precautions. Picnic shelters, dugouts, sheds and other partially open or small structures are NOT safe.
Enclosed buildings are safe because of wiring and plumbing. If lightning strikes these types of buildings, or an outside telephone pole, the electrical current from the flash will typically travel through the wiring or the plumbing into the ground. This is why you should stay away from showers, sinks, hot tubs, etc., and electronic equipment such as TVs, radios, and computers.
Lightning can damage or destroy electronics so it’s important to have a proper lightning protection system connected to your electronic equipment. The American Meteorological Society has tips for protecting your electronics from lightning.
Examples of buildings which are unsafe include car ports, covered but open garages, covered patio, picnic shelters, beach shacks/pavilions, golf shelters, camping tents, large outdoor tents, baseball dugouts and other small buildings such as sheds and greenhouses that do not have electricity or plumbing.
A safe vehicle is a hard-topped car, SUV, minivan, bus, tractor, etc. (soft-topped convertibles are not safe) . If you seek shelter in your vehicle, make sure all doors are closed and windows rolled up. Do not touch any metal surfaces.
If you’re driving when a thunderstorm starts, pull off the roadway. A lightning flash hitting the vehicle could startle you and cause temporary blindness, especially at night.
Do not use electronic devices such as HAM radios during a thunderstorm. Lightning striking the vehicle, especially the antennas, could cause serious injury if you are talking on the radio or holding the microphone at the time of the flash. Emergency officials such as police officers, firefighters, security officers, etc., should use extreme caution using radio equipment when lightning is in the area.
Your vehicle and its electronics may be damaged if hit by lightning. Vehicles struck by lightning are known to have flat tires the next day. This occurs because the lightning punctures tiny holes in the tires. Vehicles have caught fire after being struck by lightning; however, there is no modern day documented cases of vehicles “exploding” due to a lightning flash.
Bolts from the Blue
There are times when a lightning flash can travel horizontally many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself and then strike the ground. These types of lightning flashes are called “Bolts from the Blue” because they seem to come out of a clear blue sky. Although these flashes are rare, they have been known to cause fatalities.
When a Safe Location is Nearby:
Plan Ahead! Your best source of up-to-date weather information is a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). Portable weather radios are handy for outdoor activities. If you don’t have NWR, stay up to date via internet, TV, local radio or cell phone. If you are in a group, make sure all leaders or members of the group have a lightning safety plan and are ready to use it.
Determine how far you are from a safe enclosed building or a safe vehicle. As soon as you hear thunder, see lightning or see dark threatening clouds, get to a safe location. Then wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before you leave the safe location. If you are part of a group, particularly a large one, you will need more time to get all group members to safety. NWS recommends having professional lightning detection equipment so your group can be alerted from significant distances from the event site.
When groups are involved, the time needed to get to safety increases. So you need to start leaving sooner. Your entire group should already be in a safe location when the approaching storm reaches within 5 miles from your location.
Here some two common scenarios with suggestions on how to safely respond.
Coach of Outdoor Sports Team
You are a manager of a little league team and have a game this evening at the local recreational park. The weather forecast for the day calls for a partly cloudy skies, with a chance of thunderstorms by early evening. You arrive in your vehicle while the kids arrive with their parents. Once arriving at the park, you notice the only buildings are the the restrooms, an enclosed building. Shortly after sunset, the skies start to cloud up and you see bright flashes in the sky to the west. The local radio station mentions storms are on the way. In this case, the safest locations are the vehicles the kids came in or the rest rooms. You should have a choice of allowing the kids to go back to their vehicles or bring everyone into the restrooms. It is important NOT to stay in the dugouts as they are not safe place during lightning activity. Once at a safe place, wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before going back outside.
Family at the Beach
You plan to go to the beach or lake later this morning with the kids. The weather forecast calls for a nice morning followed by a 30 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. You decide to head for the beach in your minivan. The beach is about 5 minutes from the parking lot. The only nearby buildings are picnic shelters. By early afternoon you notice the skies darkening and hear distant thunder. What would be your lightning safety plan of action? In this case, the best place to go is your car. Do NOT seek shelter under the beach picnic shacks because these are not safe in lightning storms. Wait 30 minutes until after the last thunder crack before going back to the beach or driving home.
You and your family are camping. As you and your spouse are preparing dinner on the camp stove, you here rumbles of thunder in the distance. You look around and you see your tent is nearby, and a large picnic shelter is just down the trail. Your car is about ¼ of a mile away parked at the trail head. What should you and your family do? In this case, the smartest thing to do is to round up your family and get into your car. The tent is not a safe place to be as it offers NO protection from a lighting flash. The picnic shelter is also not a safe location. (Both the tent and picnic shelter will keep you dry…but they offer NO protection from a lightning flash). It is best to remain in your vehicle for about 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder is heard.
When a Safe Location Is Not Nearby
The lightning safety community reminds you that there is NO safe place to be outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can’t get to safety, this section is designed to help you lesson the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Don’t kid yourself–you are NOT safe outside.
Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or shelter, follow these last resort tips. These will not prevent you from being hit, just slightly lesson the odds.
If lightning is in the immediate area, and there is no safe location nearby, stay at least 15 feet apart from other members of your group so the lightning won’t travel between you if hit. Keep your feet together and sit on the ground out in the open. If you can possibly run to a vehicle or building, DO so. Sitting or crouching on the ground is not safe and should be a last resort if a enclosed building or vehicle is not available.
Motorcyclist/Bicyclist: So has anyone been hit riding a bike? Here are just a few real examples from the last few years.
Protect Yourself when on a bicycle, motorcycle or dirt bike.
If you absolutely cannot get to a safe building or vehicle, here are some last resort choices:
IMPORTANT: These recommendations are a last resort. You are NOT safe in these places just marginally safer than in the open.
The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin. It is crucial to listen to the weather on a small aquatic vessel without a cabin. If thunderstorms are forecast, don’t go out. If you are out on the water and skies are threatening, get back to land and find a safe building or vehicle.
Boats with cabins offer a safer but not perfect environment. Safety is increased further if the boat has a properly installed lightning protection system. If you are inside the cabin, stay away from metal and all electrical components. STAY OFF THE RADIO UNLESS IT IS AN ABSOLUTE EMERGENCY!
What should you do if you are on a small vessel and lightning becomes a threat? If the vessel has an anchor, then you should properly anchor the boat then get as low as possible.
Large boats with cabins, especially those with lightning protection systems properly installed or metal marine vessels are relatively safe. Remember to stay inside the cabin and away from any metal surfaces.
If the boat you are in does not have a safe cabin to be in during lightning activity, then you are safer diving deep into the water for the duration of the storm or as long as possible. Your first choice is to head in and get in safe building or vehicle.
Safe Shelters & Indoor Safety
What is a Safe Shelter?
A house or other substantial building offers the best protection from lightning. In assessing the safety provided by a particular structure, it is more important to consider what happens if the structure gets struck by lightning, rather than whether the structure will be hit by lightning. For a shelter to provide protection from lightning, it must contain a mechanism for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground. These mechanisms may be on the outside of the structure, may be contained within the walls of the structure, or may be a combination of the two. On the outside, lightning can travel along the outer shell of the building or may follow metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning can follow conductors such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines to the ground.
Avoid Unsafe Shelters!
Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. Many small open shelters on athletic fields, golf courses, parks, roadside picnic areas, schoolyards and elsewhere are designed to protect people from rain and sun, but not lightning. A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout, or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground is not safe. Small wooden, vinyl, or metal sheds offer little or no protection from lightning and should be avoided during thunderstorms.
How Lightning Enters a House or Building
There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: (1) a direct strike, (2) through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure, and (3) through the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.
Stay Safe While Inside
Phone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States. Lightning can travel long distances in both phone and electrical wires, particularly in rural areas. Stay away from windows and doors as these can provide the path for a direct strike to enter a home. Do not lie on the concrete floor of a garage as it likely contains a wire mesh. In general, basements are a safe place to go during thunderstorms. However, there are some things to keep in mind. Avoid contact with concrete walls which may contain metal reinforcing bars. Avoid washers and dryers since they not only have contacts with the plumbing and electrical systems, but also contain an electrical path to the outside through the dryer vent.
Remember Your Pets
You may want to consider the safety of your family pets during thunderstorms. Dog houses are not lightning-safe. Dogs that are chained to trees or chained to wire runners can easily fall victim to a lightning strike.
Protect Your Personal Property
Lightning also causes significant damage to personal property each year. In addition to direct strikes, lightning generates electrical surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike. Typical surge protectors will NOT protect equipment from a lightning strike. To the extent possible, unplug any appliances or electronic equipment from all conductors well before a thunderstorm threatens. This includes not only the electrical system, but also the reception system. If you plan to be away from your home when thunderstorms are possible, be sure to unplug unneeded equipment before you leave.
Summary of Lightning Safety Tips for Inside the Home
History and Mystery of Lightning
Science investigates the known, the unknown, and unknowable. Today, lightning research is divided into various disciplines, some of which are:
These detailed technical examinations may never provide all the answers about lightning, but modern investigation techniques are busy providing new information.
There was another earlier time when lightning was the magic fire from the sky which man captured and used to keep warm at night . It kept the savage animals away. As primitive man sought answers about the natural world, lightning became a part of his superstitions, his myths and his early religions.
Early Greeks believed that lightning was a weapon of Zeus. Thunderbolts were invented by Minerva the goddess of wisdom. Since lightning was a manifestation of the gods, any spot struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman temples often were erected at these sites, where the gods were worshipped in an attempt to appease them. The Moslems also attributed lightning and thunder to their god. The Koran says “He it is who showeth you lightning and launches the thunderbolts.”
Scandinavian mythology alludes to Thor, the thunderer, who was the foe of all demons. Thor tossed lightning bolts at his enemies. Thor also gave us Thurs-day.
In the pantheistic Hindu religion, Indra was the god of heaven, lightning, rain, storms and thunder. The Maruts used the thunderbolts as weapons. Umpundulo is the lightning bird-god of the Bantu tribesmen in Africa. Even today their medicine men go out in storms and bid the lightning to strike far away.
The Navajo Indians hold that lightning has great power in their healing rituals. Sand paintings show the lightning bolt as a wink in the Thunderbird’s eye. Lightning is associated with wind, rain and crop growth.
As late as the early 1800s in Russia, when rain was wanted, three men climbed a tree. One would knock two firebrands together; the sparks imitating lightning. Another one would pour water over twigs, imitating rain. A third would bang on a kettle to attract the thunder. And throughout early Europe, church bell ringers would make as much noise as possible, hoping to scare away the storms from these holy dwellings which were struck frequently by lightning.
During the Napoleonic wars, more than 220 British tall ships were damaged–not by the French, but by lightning. The solution, of course, was to install lightning rods. But since that device had been invented by a “rebel colonist” named Benjamin Franklin,
His Majesty’s Navy steadfastly refused. It took until the 1830’s before the admiralty finally saw the light and forgot about old colonial rebellions.
Even Santa Klaus gets into the act with his reindeer Donner (thunder) and Blitzen (lightning).
Early superstitions were observed as Cause and Effect, which now has been fancified as science. Socrates said, “that’s not Zeus up there, it’s a vortex of air.” Genghis Kahn forbade his subjects from washing garments or bathing in running water during a storm. Thales, the Greek philosopher, in 600 BC, rubbed a piece of amber with a dry cloth and noted that it would then attract feathers and straw. William Gilbert, court healer to Queen Elizabeth, in the late 1500s, also used amber to duplicate the earlier experiments. He named this via electrica, after electra which is Greek for amber. He didn’t know it, but he was demonstrating static electricity.
Lightning is a big spark…static electricity on a giant scale. Machines for creating static electricity were invented…the Leyden jar was like a thermos bottle which stored volts. Friction machines could charge the jars and electricity could be carried around and demonstrated. “Electric magic” was in great demand at the royal courts of Europe as entertainment. The parlor tricks amused and fascinated people.
Science was in its infancy during these times. Sir Isaac Newton had proposed that basic mathematical laws were the foundation for understanding the forces of nature. With “electric magic” there was insufficient experimental investigation to explain its behavior. In 1746, Dr. Spence from Scotland came to Philadelphia. He there demonstrated some “electric magic” to an audience which included the local postmaster.
That man was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was curiosity personified. At age eight he left the Boston Grammar School, ending his formal studies. He was endowed with a strong sense of investigation and self-discipline. He learned and studied things all his life. He invented the bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove. An expert swimmer, a vegetarian, multi-lingual, and a word-smith publisher, his Poor Richard’s Almanac was selling 10,000 copies a year in the colonies. Even today some of those aphorisms about thrift and hard work are valuable to recall:
Honesty is the best policy. He who drinketh fast, payeth slow. Sloth maketh all things difficult, but Industry all easy.
At age 42, Franklin sold his Philadelphia printing business for half the profits for 20 years. He retired. He involved himself in social experiments like the American Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. He dabbled with the electric Leyden Jar and pondered questions…”how many small jars would kill a chicken? How many large jars for a turkey? Why did an electrocuted turkey taste better than a conventionally-killed bird? What is lightning? Why is it burning down churches? Can it be captured to a Leyden jar? Can it be captured to earth safely?…” Then came the kites and keys experiments in 1752-53 and Franklin’s deduction that lightning was, afterall, electricity.
This was followed by his lightning rod invention and its duplication in France and usefulness throughout Europe. Franklin was a celebrated figure in his time. Franklin has been called America’s patron saint of common sense. Perhaps, had he not been close to the French Royal Court, and been able to influence France to finance the American Revolutionary War, all of us here in the USA today might be speaking with English accents!
Recently some scientists have concluded that lightning may have played a part in the evolution of living organisms. Nobel prize winning chemist Harold Urey proposed that the earth’s early atmosphere consisted of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water vapor. One of his students, Stanley Miller, used an electric spark to duplicate lightning and introduced it into the chemical brew. He was careful to excluded any living organisms from the experiment. At the end of a week, he examined the mixture and found it contained newly-formed amino acids, the very building blocks of protein. Did lightning play a role in creating life itself? Science now is pushing the envelope of lightning’s secrets. More has been learned about this transient phenomenon in the past 3-4 years than in the preceding two hundred forty four years since Franklin’s “kites and keys” experiments. Stay tuned…
Science investigates the known, the unknown, and unknowable. Detailed technical examinations may never provide all the answers about lightning, but modern investigation techniques are busy providing new information. Lightning research is divided into various disciplines, some of which are:
How Powerful is Lightning?
Each spark of lightning can reach over five miles in length, soar to temperatures of approximately 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain 100 million electrical volts.
Lightning Is A Random, Chaotic And Dangerous Fact Of Nature
At any given moment, there are 1,800 thunderstorms in progress somewhere on the earth. This amounts to 16 million storms each year! Scientists that study lightning have a better understanding today of the process that produces lightning, but there is still more to learn about the role of solar flares on the upper atmosphere, the earth’s electromagnetic field, and ice in storms. We know the cloud conditions needed to produce lightning, but cannot forecast the location or time of the next stroke of lightning. There are lightning detection systems in the United States and they monitor an average of 25 million flashes of lightning from the cloud to ground every year!
Lightning has been seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, and in large hurricanes, however, it is most often seen in thunderstorms. A thunderstorm forms in air that has three components: moisture, instability and something such as a cold front to cause the air to rise. Continued rising motions within the storm may build the cloud to a height of 35,000 to 60,000 feet (6 to 10 miles) above sea level. Temperatures higher in the atmosphere are colder; ice forms in the higher parts of the cloud.
Ice In The Cloud Is Critical To The Lightning Process
Ice in a cloud seems to be a key element in the development of lightning. Storms that fail to produce quantities of ice may also fail to produce lightning. In a storm, the ice particles vary in size from small ice crystals to larger hailstones, but in the rising and sinking motions within the storm there are a lot of collisions between the particles. This causes a separation of electrical charges. Positively charged ice crystals rise to the top of the thunderstorm, and negatively charged ice particles and hailstones drop to the middle and lower parts of the storm. Enormous charge differences (electrical differential) develops.
How Lightning Develops Between The Cloud And The Ground
A moving thunderstorm gathers another pool of positively charged particles along the ground that travel with the storm. As the differences in charges continue to increase, positively charged particles rise up taller objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles. Have you ever been under a storm and had your hair stand up? Yes, the particles also can move up you! This is one of nature’s warning signs that says you are in the wrong place, and you may be a lightning target!
The negatively charged area in the storm will send out a charge toward the ground called a stepped leader. It is invisible to the human eye, and moves in steps in less than a second toward the ground. When it gets close to the ground, it is attracted by all these positively charged objects, and a channel develops. You see the electrical transfer in this channel as lightning. There may be several return strokes of electricity within the established channel that you will see as flickering lightning.
The lightning channel heats rapidly to 50,000 degrees. The rapid expansion of heated air causes the thunder. Since light travels faster than sound in the atmosphere, the sound will be heard after the lightning. If you see lightning and hear thunder at the same time, that lightning is in your neighborhood!
Negative Lightning And Positive Lightning
Not all lightning forms in the negatively charged area low in the thunderstorm cloud. Some lightning originates in the cirrus anvil at the top of the thunderstorm. This area carries a large positive charge. Lightning from this area is called positive lightning. This type is particularly dangerous for several reasons. It frequently strikes away from the rain core, either ahead or behind the thunderstorm. It can strike as far as 5 or 10 miles from the storm, in areas that most people do not consider to be a lightning risk area. The other problem with positive lightning is it typically has a longer duration, so fires are more easily ignited. Positive lightning usually carries a high peak electrical current, which increases the lightning risk to an individual.
More Lightning Information
Written by Stephen Moynihan