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Thunderstorms & Lightning

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Lightning Safety Week: June 23-29, 2015


LIGHTNING SAFETY AWARENESS

The capricious nature of thunderstorms makes them extremely dangerous; however, following proven lightning safety guidelines can reduce your risk of injury or death. You are ultimately responsible for your personal safety and that of your family.

You have the responsibility to act when threatened by lightning.

No place is absolutely safe from lightning; however, some places are much safer than others. The safest location during lightning activity is an enclosed building. The second safest location is an enclosed metal vehicle, car, truck, van, etc., but NOT a convertible, bike or other topless or soft top vehicle.

Safe Buildings

A safe building is one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls and floor, such as a home, school, office building or a shopping center. Even inside, you should take precautions. Picnic shelters and other partially open structures such as a dining fly over a picnic table are NOT safe.
Enclosed buildings are safe because of wiring and plumbing. If lightning strikes these types of buildings, or an outside telephone pole, the electrical current from the flash will typically travel through the wiring or the plumbing into the ground. This is why you should stay away from showers, sinks, hot tubs, etc., and electronic equipment such as TVs, radios, and computers.
Lightning can damage or destroy electronics so its important to have a proper lightning protection system connected to your electronic equipment. The American Meteorological Society has tips for protecting your electronics from lightning. Unsafe Buildings

Examples of buildings which are unsafe include car ports, covered but open garages, covered patio, picnic shelters, beach shacks/pavilions, golf shelters, camping tents, large outdoor tents, baseball dugouts and other partially open structures.

How Far Away Is Lightning From Me?

To estimate the distance between you and a lightning flash, use the "Flash to Bang" method: If you observe lightning, count the number of seconds until you hear thunder. Divide the number of seconds by five to get the distance in miles.

Example: If you see lightning and it takes 10 seconds before you hear the thunder, then the lightning is 2 miles away from you (10 divided by 5 = 2 miles).

If Thunder is heard
The Lightning is...
5 seconds after a Flash 1 mile away
10 seconds after a Flash 2 miles away
15 seconds after a Flash 3 miles away
20 seconds after a Flash 4 miles away
25 seconds after a Flash 5 miles away
30 seconds after a Flash 6 miles away


Get to a safe location if the time between the lightning flash and the rumble of thunder is 30 seconds or less.
Safe Vehicle

A safe vehicle is a hard-topped car, SUV, minivan, bus, tractor, etc. (soft-topped convertibles are not safe). If you seek shelter in your vehicle, make sure all doors are closed and windows rolled up. Do not touch any metal surfaces.
If you're driving when a thunderstorm starts, pull off the roadway. A lightning flash hitting the vehicle could startle you and cause temporary blindness, especially at night. Do not use electronic devices such as HAM radios or cell phones during a thunderstorm. Lightning striking the vehicle, especially the antennas, could cause serious injury if you are talking on the radio or holding the microphone at the time of the flash.

Your vehicle and its electronics may be damaged if hit by lightning. Vehicles struck by lightning are known to have flat tires the next day. This occurs because the lightning punctures tiny holes in the tires. Vehicles have caught fire after being struck by lightning; however, there is no modern day documented cases of vehicles "exploding" due to a lightning flash. One of the most dangerous types of cloud-to-ground lightning are bolts from the blue. A "Bolt from the Blue" is a cloud-to-ground lighting flash that typically:
  • Comes out of the back side of the thunderstorm cloud
  • Travels a relatively large distance in clear air away from the storm cloud
  • Then angles down and strikes the ground.
These lightning flashes have been documented to travel more than 25 miles away from the thunderstorm cloud. Bolt from the Blue lightning flashes are a particularly dangerous type of lightning flash, as they appear to come out of clear sky. This type of lightning is why it is dangerous to be outside when thunderstorms are in the region, even when skies are still clear. Lightning can, and does, strike many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself. It is a good idea to wait 30 minutes or more after the rain ends before resuming outdoor activities.


Bolts From the Blue

One of the most dangerous types of cloud-to-ground lightning are bolts from the blue. A "Bolt from the Blue" is a cloud-to-ground lighting flash that typically:
  • Comes out of the back side of the thunderstorm cloud
  • Travels a relatively large distance in clear air away from the storm cloud
  • Then angles down and strikes the ground.
These lightning flashes have been documented to travel more than 25 miles away from the thunderstorm cloud. Bolt from the Blue lightning flashes are a particularly dangerous type of lightning flash, as they appear to come out of clear sky. This type of lightning is why it is dangerous to be outside when thunderstorms are in the region, even when skies are still clear. Lightning can, and does, strike many miles away from the thunderstorm cloud itself. It is a good idea to wait 30 minutes or more after the rain ends before resuming outdoor activities.


When a safe location is nearby, follow the "30/30 Rule."

Plan Ahead! Your best source of up-to-date weather information is a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). Portable weather radios are handy for outdoor activities. If you don't have NWR, stay up to date via internet, TV, local radio or cell phone. If you are in a group, make sure all leaders or members of the group have a lightning safety plan and are ready to use it.

Determine how far you are from a safe enclosed building or a safe vehicle. As soon as you hear thunder, see lightning or see dark threatening clouds, get to a safe location. Then wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before you leave the safe location. If you are part of a group, particularly a large one, you will need more time to get all group members to safety. NWS recommends having professional lightning detection equipment so your group can be alerted from significant distances from the event site.
When the you are with a large group or family, the time needed to get to safety increases. So you need to start leaving sooner. Your entire group should already be in a safe location when the approaching storm reaches within 5 miles from your location.


When a Safe Location Is Not Nearby

The lightning safety community reminds you that there is NO safe place to be outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can't get to safety, this section is designed to help you lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside.
Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or shelter, follow these last resort tips.

Dead cows lined up along a metallic fence. Lightning struck the fence, and the current traveled along the fence killing the cows.

Photo Courtesy Ruth Lyon-Bateman

If lightning is in the immediate area, and there is no safe location nearby, get into the lightning desperation position. Crouch down but do NOT lay down. Bend your knees down while keeping your feet together.

Motorcyclist/Bicyclist: So has anyone been hit riding a bike? Here are just a few real examples from the last few years.

Protect yourself when on a bicycle, motorcycle or dirt bike.


Lightning Desperation Position
If you absolutely cannot get to a safe building or vehicle, here are some last resort choices:
  • Wait out the storm below an overpass. DO NOT touch steel girders. Move away from your bike. Remain on the dry surfaces if possible. Overpasses are engineered structures and are likely to be properly grounded. Although an overpass is likely to be higher than the surrounding landscape, if it is struck by lightning, the electrical current will likely be channeled safely into the ground.
  • Look for a bridge. Stay away from water. Stay away from any metal surfaces. Be alert for rapidly rising water if under a bridge.
  • High tension wires:  If high voltage electrical tension wires cross the road, you may want to seek shelter directly underneath these wires. Do not get too close to the large metal towers which hold up these wires. Stay at least 50 feet away. Electric companies design these high tension wires for lightning strikes. If lighting should strike the wires or towers, the current is designed to safely go deep into the ground.
If you are caught in the open and lightning is occurring within 5 miles, STOP riding, get off of your motorcycle/bicycle, find a ditch or other low spot and get into the lightning desperation position.



How Do Lightning Injuries Affect People?

Lightning tends to be a nervous system injury and may affect the brain, autonomic nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. When the brain is affected, the person often has difficulty with short-term memory, coding new information and accessing old information, multitasking, distractibility, irritability and personality change.

"Patients have difficulty in all areas that require them to analyze more items of information than they can handle simultaneously. They present (appear) as slow because it takes longer for smaller than normal chunks of information to be processed. They present as distractible because they do not have the spare capacity to monitor irrelevant stimuli at the same time as they are attending to the relevant stimulus. They present as forgetful because while they are concentrating on point A, they do not have the processing space to think about point B simultaneously. They present as inattentive because when the amount of information that they are given exceeds their capacities, they cannot take it all in."

Early on, survivors may complain of intense headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other post-concussion types of symptoms. Survivors may also experience difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively at first and then only two or three hours at a time. A few may develop seizure-like activity several weeks to months after the
injury.



Other Information & Resources

Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, Lightning...Nature's Most Violent Storms

Basic Spotters' Field Guide

Are you ready? Tornadoes - FEMA       Tornado - American Red Cross          Severe weather Outllook - visit the NOAA Website



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