Each year, dozens of Americans die and hundreds more are injured as a result of being struck by lightning. And as spring turns into summer, it’s becoming increasingly important for people to remain aware of the risks of lighting storms and how to stay safe.
The Science Behind a Lightning Storm
Lightning is a polarizing force of nature. It’s incredibly beautiful and breathtaking, yet violent and unrestrained. At any given moment, there are thousands of lighting strikes happening all around the world. But what causes them?
Lightning is the result of electrical energy hopping between negatively and positively charged areas in the clouds. There’s nothing dangerous about it – until the lightning reaches for the earth.
“When the negative charge in the cloud becomes great enough, it seeks an easy path to the positively charged ground below,” explains Robert Roy Britt of Live Science. “The current looks for a good conductor of electricity, or a tall structure anchored to the ground (such as a tree or a tall building). The negative charge sends out a feeler, called a stepped leader, which is a series of invisible steps of negative charges.”
When this stepped leader gets close to the ground, the positive streamer actually reaches up for it. This creates a channel, which is the visible lightning we see from earth. The majority of strikes last for less than half a second and are less than two inches in diameter.
Three Things You Need to Know to Stay Safe
Now that you understand a bit more about what lightning is and how it’s created, let’s take a look at some of the things you need to know in order to stay safe.
1. What to Do on a Boat
Have you ever been on a boat during a lightning storm? It’s one of the last places you want to be. However, if you take the right precautions, you can decrease your chance of injury.
“Your first and best line of defense is to avoid electrical storms in the first place,” points out Wholesale Marine, a leader in boat maintenance. “Track the direction of the storm’s progress with your radar, and don’t wait until it’s right on top of you to start moving.”
If it’s impossible to avoid the storm, start lowering things like towers, antennas, fishing rods, and outriggers that could attract lightning (unless they are part of a lightning protection system). Another important tip is to avoid holding two different metal objects, such as a metal railing and a steering wheel, as this can allow electricity to pass through you.
Above all else, make sure you put on life jackets and huddle towards the center of the boat. With luck, the storm will pass within a few minutes and you’ll be able to resume your activities.
2. When You Can’t Go Indoors
While the best thing you can do when caught in a lightning storm is to seek shelter indoors, that isn’t always possible. The next best thing is to find a safe, enclosed shelter – hardtop vehicle, a bus stop, or anything that provides some level of protection from the storm.
If absolutely no shelter is available, look for the lowest point to the ground and tuck your hands over your ears. Curl up in a ball and try to touch as little of the ground as possible. Lightning causes electric currents to pass along the ground and can reach as far as 100 feet out. By reducing your footprint, you’re less likely to be affected.
3. When You’re Indoors
While being inside is ideal during a lightning storm, it doesn’t mean you’re 100 percent safe. Lightning can hit homes and send electrical currents through structures. As a rule of thumb, try to get as close to the center of the structure as possible (you want as many walls as possible between you and the outdoors).
You should also avoid handling electrical equipment like landline phones. The electrical current from a nearby lightning strike can travel through wires and shock the person holding the device.
Don’t Become a Statistic
Lightning is nothing to mess around with. While it may look beautiful, it’s actually very deadly. Each year in the United States, approximately 51 people are killed and hundreds more are injured by these electrical charges. Think about these tips, warn your friends and loved ones, and seek protection when storms are on the way.