Scared Of Lightning? You Should Be

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) Every year the thousands of thunderstorms that pulse up in the U.S. produce thousands, if not millions of bolts of lightning. That lightning kills an average of 100 Americans a year.  That amounts to more deaths than those caused by either tornadoes or hurricanes. Still, we don’t seem to be as scared of lightning as we should.

“Lightning tends to kill one person at a time, whereas you have a big storm system come through with a lot of tornadoes and you may lose 50 people,” said Dr. Hugh Christian, Senior Research Scientist at UAHuntsville.  “So, there’s a much bigger awareness of how dangerous they are, but there are thousands and thousands of storms going on over the course of the summer.”

Statistics indicate lightning is something to be feared. In your lifetime there’s a one in 6,000 chance you’ll be struck by lightning. If you are struck, there’s a one in 10 chance you’ll die.

“If you take a direct lightning strike, the current flowing through your body can be 100,000 amps, which is a lot of current. That’s enough to disrupt organs, to fry organs. It’s enough to stop your heart,” said Dr. Christian. “It doesn’t have to hit you. Going through the ground, it can go in one foot and out the other and that’s enough to stop your heart.”

Dr. John Christy is also a weather scientist at UAHuntsville and the Alabama State
Climatologist. He says every year, lightning hits every square mile in north Alabama an average of 20 times. Figuring 1,000 homes in a square mile, he says there’s a good chance for a strike.

We asked him about his own attitude toward lightning.

“When there’s a thunderstorm, and I like to be outdoors running and so on, I go inside. I just do not tempt fate,” said Dr. Christy. “Mother nature has a way to take you out with a lightning strike. I just get inside.”

In the Earth Systems Science Center at UAHuntsville, where Doctors Christian and Christy both work, lightning is a subject of intense study. In fact, UAHuntsville has designed and developed a real-time lightning mapper that will be part of the next generation of weather satellites deployed by the U.S.. They’ll be launched in 2015.

Not only will the lightning mapper help with the study of the dangers of lightning, but also with the way lightning can actually provide warning for tornadoes.

“If we can study lightning from space, if we can see every flash that occurs within the storm, and we have found there’s a very good correlation between when a storm starts to intensify and when the flash rate starts to increase,” said Dr. Christian. “We call this the jump signature of lightning, and when that occurs, that storm is going to go severe for instance, it’s going to produce a tornado.”

He adds that using the mapper data and radar together will allow another half hour of warning before tornadoes are on the ground.

The bottom line, the lightning that you should rightly fear can also be a force to save your life. Scientists want to know more about it for both reasons.