Lightning is very deadly. In fact according to the National Weather Service it is responsible for an average of 62 deaths and 300 documented injuries a year over the past 30 years in the United States. This is second only to floods in weather related fatalities and does not take into account deaths from fire as a result of lightning which is a major problem. The best way to survive a lightning strike is to avoid being struck! It is easy to become desensitized to the dangers of lightning in areas where thunderstorms occur frequently because you may see thousands of bolts of lightning in one storm and never be struck. The shear number of bolts that can be generated in a storm are however precisely what makes them more likely to strike you.
The most dangerous form of lightning is that of the cloud to ground variety, commonly referred to as CG’s. Though the exact causes of lightning are still being researched it is generally agreed that lightning will join two centers of opposite charge. The debate about lightning formation mainly concerns exactly how the thunderstorm produces these opposite charges. A CG results from a negative charge near the cloud base bringing about a positive charge on the surface. The result is a bolt connecting the opposite poles. A common misconception is that the lightning bolt from a CG will come down on your head. What actually happens is as the bolt (called a stepped ladder) descends it attracts the positive charge from the surface (return stroke) thus initiating the real power of the bolt flowing up from the service to meet its’ descending counterpart.
You should follow safety rules that apply to all severe thunderstorms in order to reduce your chances of being struck by lightning. Keep a weather radio with SAME (specific area message encoding) technology and working batteries around. Staying indoors away from windows is especially important. Do not use telephones, and it is a good idea to not be seated on the toilet. Though it is rare there have been several documented cases of people being blown clear off the seat! Pipes and wires are good electrical conductors. A lightning rod can be installed to your home in order to divert the current harmlessly under the ground. These are not as simple to install as they appear however and are best left to a professional. An improperly installed lightning rod can even increase the risk of fire resulting from a lightning strike.
The real problem arises when you are unable to get indoors before a lightning strike picks you as its’ conductor. This problem may be avoided if you are able to determine just how far way the lightning is occurring. Lightning obviously travels at the speed of light which is approximately 100,000 miles per second. Thunder travels at the speed of sound or roughly 1000 feet per second. This makes it convenient to get a good idea of how far away the lightning is. When you see the lightning immediately count…a thousand one…a thousand two, when you hear the thunder then stop countIng. This number will be the distance of the lightning in thousands of feet. So if you get to 7 the lightning is about 7000 feet away. An average middle latitude extra tropical storm in the spring and summer months moves at a bout 30 miles per hour (though can be more than double that speed), that gives you an idea of how much time you have to avoid the lightning all together.
If you are unable to get indoors or into a vehicle before the lightning is overhead you should find the lowest spot away from tall and/or metal objects. If you are in an open area you should NOT go near a single standing tree to take cover from rain as this is the most likely place in the area a CG strike! It would form under your feet before traveling through you to meet with the bolt coming down from the storm. While a vehicle is a safe haven for lightning, it can be dangerous to be in a car with thigh winds or threat of tornados. If you see or feel you hair tingling and standing up I say run! Some meteorologists say to squat to the ground, but I have seen several videos of storm chasers with their hands standing on end, only to run or jump back into the car and have a bolt just miss them!
Thunderstorms can be extremely beautiful to watch. Even chasing storms can be a breathtaking and safe experience if you are with a qualified professional. It is important to remember just how dangerous the light show can be. Please be cautious and use common sense!