More people are killed or injured by lightning during the summer months than at any other time of the year. While lightning is a danger all year long, people spend more time enjoying the outdoors in the summer months, increasing their exposure. In fact, 62 percent of lightning deaths occur while people are participating in leisure activities. People are killed or seriously injured every summer by ignoring the potential of lightning in order to not disrupt plans, a risk not worth taking. That's why the motto for Lightning Safety Awareness Week (June 23-29, 2013) is "When thunder roars, head indoors."
Photo courtesy of Bruce Guenter.
Whenever you hear thunder, you are at risk of lightning strikes. The best protection from lightning is a sturdy, enclosed building. Gazebos, tents, picnic pavilions and other structures without walls do not offer proper protection from lightning. While a secure building is the best choice for avoiding lightning, a car can also protect you from. Open vehicles and golf carts, however, are not safe.
The first way to prevent being struck by lightning is to look at a weather forecast before planning to be outdoors. When preparing for a camping trip, for example, knowing that there could be a thunderstorm in your area can allow you to plan ahead in case a storm moves through. Set up your site near your vehicle and don't travel too far away from it if the skies start to turn. You should also avoid going out on the water in a boat, kayak or other water vehicle if there is a chance for thunderstorms in your area and you see signs of a storm.
Once you start to hear thunder or see lightning you should start making your way to cover. If finding shelter isn't possible, avoid open fields or the tops of hills or ridge tops. While heading towards a building or car it's important not to do anything to attract lightning while you are still vulnerable. Avoid standing underneath trees, near telephone poles or any other tall objects that conduct electricity. If it's raining, don't try to stand underneath an unsecured shelter and wait for it to pass if you hear thunder or see lightning. Avoiding carrying anything metal. If you are in or near a pool or body of water get out and move away from it quickly.
A tree burned by a lightning strike in Cademan Wood, Leicestershire, UK. Photo courtesy of Dave W. Clarke.
Lightning can strike a person directly, but people are more likely to be injured by indirect contact, such as being hit with a ground current if lightning strikes a nearby tree. If you are in a situation where you cannot find reasonable shelter after a storm hits, there are ways to minimize your risks. Crouch as low to the ground as you can; do not lie down on the ground or put your hands down. Stay on just your feet to cover as little ground as possible. You also want to be as low as you can to reduce your risks of being a lightning target. Keep anything that is a good electrical conductor away from you.
While you are significantly safer inside a building than you are outside, you are still not immune to lightning danger once you are indoors. Lightning can strike and travel through different channels that could reach you. To keep these risks to a minimum, do not use corded phones or other plugged-in electronics. Avoid using plumbing and take your shower or wash dishes after the storm has passed. Stay away from doors and windows, which can have small cracks in the frames that could allow lightning in. Don't go out onto balconies or porches. To keep your electronics safe, unplug them before the storm arrives. Do not unplug them once the storm has started, as you could be struck in the process. Also remember your pets during a storm. A dog house is not enough protection from lightning.
In 2012, lightning caused 28 deaths in the United States. While that is lower than the 30-year average of 55, the injuries that can be sustained from lightning strikes include severe burns (internal burns from lightning are rare, but possible), cardiac arrest and neurological damages. Lightning strikes can even cause lasting injuries, memory loss, chronic pain or seizure disorders, among others.
Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors, plan a vacation or host a backyard barbecue, but no plans are worth your life. Always err on the side of caution when your safety is involved.