Severe Weather Awareness Week: Lightning Safety

Lightning from a distant storm/Jeff Horton

By definition, all thunderstorms produce lightning (otherwise, they wouldn’t produce thunder either). Because of lightning all thunderstorms can pose a serious risk to your safety, whether they are severe or not.

Since 2006, as many as 20 to 50 people have been struck and killed by lightning strikes. With that said, only 10 percent of people struck by lighting are killed; the remaining 90 percent are left with varying degrees of injury, according to the Lightning Injury Research Program.

Lightning strike survivors often experience short-term injuries like superficial burns where the electricity enters and leaves the body; intense headaches; ringing in the ears; concussions; dizziness; nausea or vomiting; as well as potentially life-long injuries to the brain/nervous system.

Lightning 101: How It Forms

Lightning is a spark of electrical current flowing from the cloud to either another cloud or the ground. The atmospheric form of lightning is a giant version of the static electricity “shock” you experience when you rub your feet on the carpet and then touch the door knob.

Within a thundercloud, rising and falling air currents (called updrafts and downdrafts) carry water and ice particles high into the sky. These particles rub up on one another, causing particles to become positively charged or negatively charged.

Eventually the charged particles sift into different layers within the cloud, causing an electrical difference to develop within the cloud. When enough oppositely charged particles build up within the cloud, electrons flow from the negatively charged part of the cloud to the positively charged part of the cloud.

Why You Should Pay Attention To Thunder: Thunder follows lightning due to the amount of heat produced by a lightning bolt. A bolt of lightning is so incredibly hot, it can heat the air around it to 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit!

This rapid heating -- followed by quick cooling -- of the air causes it rapidly expand and contract, which then creates a shockwave. That wave continues to travel through the air as a sound wave until it reaches your eardrums, which is what you hear as thunder. In order for thunder to occur, lightning must be present! If you can hear thunder, that is your cue that lightning is close enough to strike you.

If you hear thunder -- or see the flash of a lightning bolt -- immediately head indoors and remain inside until 30 minutes after the last flash or boom.

Types of Lightning and The Many Ways It Can Strike You: 

There are five ways that lightning can strike a person:

    • 1.) Direct strike (person becomes a part of the main lightning channel on its way from the cloud to the ground). Strikes like this can occur 10 miles away from the parent cloud, as a "bolt from the blue". That means it could be sunny and calm where you are, and a developing thunderstorm 10 miles away can still threaten your safety.
Example of a direct lightning strike.

1.) Example of a direct lightning strike.

    • 2.) Side flash (lightning jumps from an object like a tree or pole to a person standing nearby)

2.) Example of how lightning can strike a tree, with a side flash striking a person nearby.

    • 3.) Ground current (as lightning flows into the ground, some of it may reach the person and flow through them before it disperses)

3.) Example of how lightning's current can strike someone from below the ground.


3.)Close up example of how electrons flow through a body in contact with an electrical current.

    • 4.) Conduction (the electrical current travels through conducting materials like metal fences, electrical wiring, plumbing, etc)

4.) Example of how conduction allows lightning to travel from a tree to a fence and injure someone in contact with the fence.

  • 5.) Streamers (electrons flowing from the ground into and through the person its way up to the sky to meet with a lightning bolt)

5.) Example of how streamers can electrically injure a person.

Lightning safety: The most important way to stay safe is to head indoors immediately if you hear or see lightning outdoors (even in the distance).

Follow the guidelines below for what to do if you're out and lightning is detected nearby:

  • If a building is not available, get inside a vehicle that is not a convertible or soft top. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the rubber tires that protects you, but rather the hollow metal cage that makes up the body of the car.
  • If you are on or near a body of water (ie, the beach, river or lake) and you see a flash of lightning or hear a rumble of thunder, head to shore immediately and seek shelter. The majority (37 percent) of lightning-related deaths occur during water activities, with 48 percent of those succumbing to lightning did so while fishing.
  • If you are inside, you are not 100 percent safe from lightning. Avoid using electronics like computers, phones, and gaming systems unless they are wireless. Avoid using anything that requires being near plumbing like kitchen or bathroom sinks. Avoid sitting near a window since lightning can move through the glass and strike anyone sitting nearby.

To stay ahead, download our Live Alert 19 app! It will notify you if lightning has been detected in the area. It is free for both Apple and Android devices, and you can program it for different locations, including if you are at the beach or relaxing on the lake.

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