Lightning Safety: The Shocking Truth

By Elliot Abrams, AccuWeather.com chief forecaster
5/27/2012 7:30:01 AM

Though a good thunder and lightning storm can be just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer night, it's mundaneness certainly does not negate its dangers. As with other natural forces such as tornadoes and hurricanes, lightning can cause significant damage and should be taken seriously.

Lightning is electrical energy that builds up until the potential current is strong enough to overcome the natural insulating properties of air.

In a typical year, lightning kills 50-100 people and injures 10 times as many. The temperature in a bolt of lightning can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a fraction of a second.


Lightning captured by Photos.com.

When lightning threatens, a house or other substantial building is the safest place to be. Lightning can enter a building in 3 ways: a direct strike, through wires and pipes, or in through the ground.

To be safe, stay away from corded phones. Corded phone use is the leading cause of lightning injuries nationwide. Cell phone usage is okay, however, as it is wireless. Keep away from appliances, TVs and corded radios.

Lightning can also surge through plumbing; you don't want to run the water or take a shower during a thunderstorm.

In the basement, concrete is often reinforced by bars or wires, which also conduct the lightning. Outdoor shelters near athletic fields or golf courses are not safe unless grounded. Remember your pets. Dogs chained to trees and wire runners can be struck.

When a thunderstorm finally moves away, it is tempting to run back out to what you were doing before the storm. However, lightning originating at the top of a thunderstorm, the anvil, can strike miles away from the storm, so wait awhile.

This type of lightning is typically positive lightning, called that because it originates a the top of the thunderstorm in a region that is positively charged. Since a lighting stroke that starts out that high must travel a long way to reach the ground, you would expect it to have more energy.

Indeed, positive lightning can have ten times the energy of the more common negative stroke. Because of this hazard, the newest safety guidelines suggest allowing much more time and distance than previously believed between the storm and your location or activity to feel confident that it is safe.

The sky can give you clues about stormy weather. If big billowing cumulus clouds blossom skyward before noon, it can be a sign of afternoon thunderstorms. When a thunderstorm hits, there is often a menacing dark cloud line followed by lighter, more uniform clouds.

If it is raining especially hard, lightning may not be readily visible and thunder may be drowned out. Think safety in such cases: if the atmosphere has enough energy to make it rain really hard, it could easily be capable of unleashing deadly lightning.