Lightning Safety Awareness Week

Fisherman account for most lightning related deaths

By Rebecca Barry - Meteorologist
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors. Too many people wait far too long to get to a safe place when thunderstorms approach. Unfortunately, these delayed actions lead to many of the lightning deaths and injuries in the United States.

The common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth. During this 11-year period fishermen accounted for more than three times as many fatalities as
golfers, while beach activities and camping each accounted for at least twice as many deaths as golf.
From 2006 to 2016, there were a total of 33 fishing deaths, 20 beach deaths, 18 camping deaths, and 16
boating deaths. Of the sports activities, soccer saw the greatest number of deaths with 12, as compared to
golf with 9. Around the home, yard work (including mowing the lawn) accounted for 14 fatalities. For
work-related activities, ranching/farming topped the list with 17 deaths.

Males accounted for 79% of all fatalities, and more than 90% of the deaths in the fishing and sports
categories. Females had comparatively fewer deaths than men in every category, with their highest
percentages in the boating-related activities (37.5%) and routine daily/weekly activities (35%).
June, July, and August are the peak months for lightning activity across the United States and the peak
months for outdoor summer activities. As a result, more than 70% of the lightning deaths occurred in the
months of June, July, and August, with Saturdays and Sundays having slightly more deaths than other
days of the week.
Ages of the victims varied from young children to older adults with the greatest number of fatalities
between the ages of 10 and 60. Within that age range, there was a relative minimum in deaths for people
in their 30s, possibly due to parents of young children being less involved in vulnerable activities.
Based on the media reports of the fatal incidents, many victims were either headed to safety at the time of
the fatal strike or were just steps away from safety. Continued efforts are needed to convince people to
get inside a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant. For many activities, situational
awareness and proper planning are essential to safety. 

When a Safe Building or Vehicle is Nearby

There is little you can do to substantially reduce your risk if you are outside in a thunderstorm. The only completely safe action is to get inside a safe building or vehicle.

When a Safe Location is not Nearby

If you absolutely cannot get to safety, you can slightly lessen the threat of being struck with the following tips. But don't kid yourself--you are NOT safe outside. Know the weather patterns of the area you plan to visit. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon, so plan to hike early in the day and be down the mountain by noon. Listen to the weather forecast for the outdoor area you plan to visit. The forecast may be very different from the one near your home. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, stay inside.

  • Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
  • If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.
  • If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
  • Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

On the Water

The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin. It is crucial to listen to weather information when you are boating. If thunderstorms are forecast, do not go out. If you are out and cannot get back to land and safety, drop anchor and get as low as possible. Large boats with cabins, especially those with lightning protection systems properly installed, or metal marine vessels are relatively safe. Remember to stay inside the cabin and away from any metal surfaces. Stay off the radio unless it is an emergency

Scuba Divers

If the boat you are in does not have a cabin you can get into during lightning activity, then you are safer diving deep into the water for the duration of the storm or as long as possible.

At the Beach or Lake

Your family plans to go to the beach today. The weather forecast calls for a nice morning followed by a 30 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. When you get to the beach, you see that the only nearby structures are open-sided picnic shelters. The parking lot is a 5 minute walk from the beach. By early afternoon skies are darkening and hear distant thunder. What should you do? Go to your car! Do NOT seek shelter under the beach picnic shelters. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the beach.

Coach of Outdoor Sports Team

Your little league team has an evening game at the local recreational park. The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, with a chance of thunderstorms by early evening. When you arrive at the park, you notice the only safe buildings are the restrooms. Shortly after sunset, the sky gets cloudy and you see bright flashes in the sky. What should you do? Get everyone into vehicles or the restrooms. Do NOT stay in the dugouts; they are not safe during lightning activity. Once in a safe place, wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before resuming play.

Lightning Myths and Facts

Myth: If you're caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your risk of being struck.
Fact: Crouching doesn't make you any safer outdoors. Run to a substantial building or hard topped vehicle. If you are too far to run to one of these options, you have no good alternative. You are NOT safe anywhere outdoors.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it's a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit an average of 23 times a year

Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
Fact: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.

Myth: Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground.
Fact: Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, NOT the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don't lean on doors during a thunderstorm.

Myth: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted.
Fact: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning Myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR!

Myth: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
Fact: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!

Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning.
Fact: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.

Myth: If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter.
Fact: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.

Myth: Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones,Mp3 players, watches, etc), attract lightning.
Fact: Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter – don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.

Myth: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, I should lie flat on the ground.
Fact: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Myth: lightning flashes are 3-4 km apart
Fact: Old data said successive flashes were on the order of 3-4 km apart. New data shows half the flashes are about 9 km apart. The National Severe Storms Laboratory report concludes: "It appears the safety rules need to be modified to increase the distance from a previous flash which can be considered to be relatively safe, to at least 10 to 13 km (6 to 8 miles). In the past, 3 to 5 km (2-3 miles) was as used in lightning safety education." Source: Separation Between Successive Lightning Flashes in Different Storms Systems: 1998, Lopez & Holle, from Proceedings 1998 Intl Lightning Detection Conference, Tucson AZ, November 1998.

Myth: A High Percentage of Lightning Flashes Are Forked.
Fact: Many cloud-to-ground lightning flashes have forked or multiple attachment points to earth. Tests carried out in the US and Japan verify this finding in at least half of negative flashes and more than 70% of positive flashes. Many lightning detectors cannot acquire accurate information about these multiple ground lightning attachments. Source: Termination of Multiple Stroke Flashes Observed by Electro- Magnetic Field: 1998, Ishii, et al. Proceedings 1998 Int'l Lightning Protection Conference, Birmingham UK, Sept. 1998.

Myth: Lightning Can Spread out Some 60 Feet After Striking Earth.
Fact: Radial horizontal arcing has been measured at least 20 m. from the point where lightning hits ground. Depending on soils characteristics, safe conditions for people and equipment near lightning termination points (ground rods) may need to be re-evaluated. Source: 1993 Triggered Lightning Test Program: Environments Within 20 meters of the Lightning Channel and Small Are Temporary Protection Concepts: 1993, SAND94-0311, Sandia Natl Lab, Albuquerque NM.

Lightning Trivia

  • Cape Canaveral Air Force Station/Kennedy Space Center has documented lightning traveling almost 90 miles outward in the thunderstorm anvil.
  • How far can you see lightning? According to Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center, up to 100-km flashes.
  • Lightning Causes Forest Fires. Can Forest Fires Cause Lightning? Yes, smoke and carbon micro-particles, when introduced into the upper atmosphere, can become the initiators of static. Sufficient atmospheric static can spark discharge as lightning. Reports of massive lightning storms in coastal Brasil, Peru and Hawaii have been linked to burning of sugar cane fields. The late 90's Mexican forest fires resulted in unusual lightning activity in the USA High Plains area (Lyons, et al.) So too can dust in an enclosed grain elevator create a static discharge. Recent reports (Orville, et al) show the Houston TX petrochemical industry, discharging copious amounts of hydrocarbons into the upper atmosphere, may be responsible for higher-than-normal lightning activity in that area. (National Lightning Safety Institute)

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