All about Lightning and Safety

We can pretty much agree on the thrill and excitement of a lightning storm, I think. Some sights and sounds and smells are just never forgotten. Forty-five years after grad school and those dazzling nighttime storms in eastern Kansas, I can still feel the electricity – even taste and smell that acrid ozone air – around the dozens of nearby lightning strikes.

Unlikely, it is, that we will have many of those moments here in Paradise. Still, as we move evermore into thunderstorm season, allow me to share the rest of the story. This could be important. After all, being struck by lightning can mess up your whole day.

On average, we get from 10 to 20 days of thunderstorms a year. The west side will run about half that. In comparison, Florida, Texas and some Midwest towns will have more than 100 days of lightning storms annually. Worldwide, lightning occurs 50 times per second, and one in five occurrences will strike the ground.

The crashing thunder results from the sudden heating and expansion of the air. A single stroke may involve a direct current of as much as 200,000 amperes and a million volts. Since lightning travels at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), a flash is virtually instantaneous.

Lightning takes many forms, but energy mostly channels from a negative to a positive charge. The most common “bolts” or “strokes,” are jagged, stepped or forked discharges from cloud to ground or vice‑versa, and often from cloud to cloud. One or another of these forms of lightning have crackled over the valley several times in the past month. “Sheet” lightning illuminates a whole section of a cloud. “Ribbon” lightning occurs when a cloud to ground discharge channel shifts between strokes, separating the strokes across the horizon, making several ribbons visible at a time. In “bead” lightning, the stroke breaks up into luminous fragments 20 or 30 meters long. One of my personal favorites is “ball” lightning, a moving, glowing sphere from tennis-ball to beach-ball size (online your will find many stories and images related to ball lightning).

In the U.S., over the last decade or so, lightning has killed 30 to 40 people a year. Worldwide, according to various sources (including the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and  the National Lightning Safety Institute) some 24,000 people die from lightning strikes annually, with injuries about ten times that number. Total annual property damage in the U.S. may exceed 300 million dollars, including loss of livestock, and fires in buildings and forests.

Tens of millions of that damage occurs each year to electrical transformers, lines, towers and other equipment. Indeed, most forms of lightning have been duplicated (rarely on purpose) in power plants, where discharges have hit the order of 150,000 amperes.

Buildings in lightning-prone areas are often protected with systems of lightning rods, conductors and grounding systems much like those designed by Ben Franklin. In efforts to neutralize the electrical potential of a storm before lightning becomes active, such systems often use tall masts, overhead grounding wires and towers.

A dozen human activities account for more than half of all lightning deaths. Fishing, camping, boating and soccer are the top four, with golf at number 12. No surprise, maybe: 82% of U.S. lightning deaths are males.

Your odds of being struck in a given year, according to NOAA, are about one in 1,083,000. That is at least 50 times LESS likely than being killed by a vehicle, but much better odds than Lotto. (Across the U.S. the odds of being struck by lightning in an 80-year lifespan are one in 13,500.)

Take simple precautions, and don’t ignore the danger. Get into a house or building. Avoid contact with metal pipes (don’t shower), stoves (don’t cook), and wires (don’t use the telephone). A metal car or truck is a good shelter (don’t touch the metal), but don’t put your life in the hands of a convertible or the back of a pickup. Caught outside, find shelter under a cliff, in a cave or in a low area like a ravine or ditch. Avoid telephone poles or flagpoles, wire fencing or clotheslines, high areas like hilltops or rooftops, and water bodies.

If you are caught out, and feel your hair stand raising, lightning may be imminent. Kneel with your feet and knees on the ground, bending over to keep your profile as low as possible. DON’T touch your head to the ground.

The good news is that nine out of ten people struck by lightning are only injured and most fully recover. Mouth‑to‑mouth or cardiopulmonary resuscitation often revives strikees. Some may need treatment for burns or shock. (It IS safe to touch someone who has been struck – they will not carry an electric charge.

The bad news, on the other hand, is that if you are the one struck, the odds don=t matter.

Enjoy the show when it happens. And be careful.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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