By Suzanne Wiley, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross
Are you the type that gets a kick out of rubbing a balloon on your younger sibling’s head to watch their hair stand up on end? No matter your age, it always looks hilarious, right?
Have you ever experienced that same charge without rubbing a balloon on your head or after shuffling on the carpet and touching something metal? Way back when I was a silly little girl whose main concern was fun in the sun, my friend and I were swimming in a resort pool at the Lake of the Ozarks. Foreboding gray clouds had formed in the distance. We failed to realize we were putting ourselves in great danger. You see, a severe thunderstorm was brewing and the static electricity in the air was so intense, our hair was standing up on end just as if we had rubbed a balloon on each other’s heads.
The clouds in the sky that day were statically charged with electricity—a clear sign to get out of the water and go inside. Luckily, we did become alarmed and went inside. Our child wonderment and amusement could have been cut short that day; lightning kills more Americans a year than tornados and hurricanes. The only other weather event that causes more fatalities is flooding. Indeed, NOAA isn’t wrong when they say that lightning is the most “underrated weather hazard.”
Scientists and weather specialists are still trying to figure out lightning, but what we do know is that the mixture of a storm cloud’s water droplets and ice, air currents and ground evaporation cause turbulence inside the cloud, polarizing the cloud’s structure. Positive charges form in the upper part of the cloud, while negative charges form in the bottom. This reaction causes an electric charge not only in the cloud, but also on the ground below. When these two electrostatic charges meet, a lightning bolt strikes.
A lightning bolt can hold up to 300 million volts of electricity and can heat the air around it five times hotter than the sun’s surface. Every day around the world there is an estimated 2,000 thunderstorms. All thunderstorms produce lightning. On average, that is eight million lightning strikes a day.
It does not necessarily have to be cloudy and rainy for lightning to strike, either. Lightning has the capability to strike 10 miles away from its originating thunderstorm. If you hear thunder—the sound lightning makes—you can be struck. (We see lightning before we hear it, because light travels faster than sound.) Even 30 minutes after a storm passes, you can still be struck by lightning, so stay indoors or in your shelter 30 minutes after you hear the last round of thunder, or see the last lightning strike.
There are many myths floating around about lightning safety. Did you know that many victims of lightning strikes were either standing under a tree or in their garage? Though lightning is not attracted to any certain item, like a metal fence, there are many good conductors for electricity—water, concrete and metal being the top conductors. There are three factors that go into where lightning strikes—height, space and isolation. One thing that is true about lightning—it tends to hit the tallest thing around.
Even though only about 10 percent of the 400 Americans hit by lightning a year die, more than half suffer long-term devastating effects such as brain damage, memory loss, and severe burns. Over your lifetime, you have a one in 3,000 chance of being struck by lightning. But here is the good news: most lightning strikes are completely avoidable! Don’t wait too long to seek shelter like I did as a kid. If clouds form and it turns dark, you see lightning or hear thunder seek shelter right away—not “just after this inning.”
When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
Whatever you do, do not stay out in the soccer field or baseball diamond. When storm clouds form, you hear thunder or see lightning seek shelter indoors. Baseball dugs out, concrete bathrooms or picnic table shelters and shades are not safe. Lightning travels through concrete. Your best bet is to seek shelter in a building with electricity and plumbing. Like I said above, it is true what you have always been told, lightning will strike the tallest thing, so don’t be the tallest thing, nor stand under the tallest thing. The second leading cause of lightning strike fatalities is due from standing under a tree. If your only option is trees, do not pick a large, isolated tree. Seek shelter under a small cluster of shorter trees. And for goodness sake’s put down your umbrella! That metal tip at the top might just as well be Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod!
Bring your pets inside, as well. Doghouses will not protect your pet. While inside, do not shower, bathe, wash dishes, or use a corded phone. Lightning can travel through wires. Stay away from windows and go all the way inside if you are in the garage. Cell phones and battery-operated electronics are safe to use during a lightning storm. Listen to the weather, turn on your NOAA-approved emergency weather alert radio, or download the American Red Cross app to stay current on when it is safe to go back outside. It is definitely not the time to fly a kite, raise a flagpole, or wear your 5-inch heels.
If you are outside and nowhere near home, your car, as long as it is not a convertible and the windows are rolled up is a safe place to seek shelter from a lightning storm. If no inside shelter or vehicle is accessible, do not remain in an open field, try to pick a wooded area and assume the “lightning position.” This position will not guarantee you will not be hit, but you have a better chance of remaining safe. To assume the lightning position, squat or crouch down on your feet. Roll up with your feet together, head down and wrap your arms around your knees. Do NOT lie down.
Get off and out of the water immediately if you are swimming or boating and seek shelter indoors. If you happen to be too far out from shore, stop all activities such as tubing, skiing, or swimming, and go into the cabin of the boat. For boats without cabins, crouch down in the bottom. Do not touch any of the electronics in the boat. If you do not have a lightning protection system, remove or lower all metal poles, like the antenna or lights. Do not touch two different metal things at the same time.
It is safe to touch someone hit by lightning. You will not get shocked. They need immediate help. Perform CPR if necessary and call 911.
Because of the frequency of thunderstorms and increase in outdoor activities, summer is peak season for lightning. To be safe, always pay attention to the weather, and cancel any outdoor activities if there is any threat of thunderstorms.