Lightning: Outdoor Safety

The National Weather Service has declared the week of June 22-28,2014, LIGHTNING SAFETY AWARENESS WEEK.

Lightning Safety Oudoors

Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months and during the afternoon hours when both lightning and outdoor activities reach a peak.  During the summer, people take
advantage of the warm weather to enjoy a multitude of recreational activities.  To be safe, those who are boating, swimming, fishing, bicycling, golfing, jogging, walking, hiking, camping, working, or just outside in their back yards need to take the appropriate actions in a timely manner when thunderstorms approach.

Being outdoors when thunderstorms are nearby is risky.  There is simply no safe place outside anytime a thunderstorm is in the area. In 2010, all lightning fatalities occurred outdoors and more than one quarter of the fatalities involved people under or near trees that were struck by lightning.  In addition, about one quarter of the
fatalities involved people in their own or neighboring yards, and water related fatalities also accounted for almost one quarter of the fatalities.

To minimize your threat of being struck by lightning while outdoors, it is important to know when the lightning threat begins to increase significantly and when the threat is reduced to minimal levels.  In general, the threat begins well before people think it begins, and ends well after people think it ends. Unfortunately, it’s this lack
of understanding that accounts for many lightning casualties.

While no one can completely eliminate the risk of being struck by lightning, by using some basic rules, you can greatly reduce your risk of becoming a lightning casualty.

  1. Plan ahead.  If thunderstorms are forecast, consider canceling or postponing outdoor activities so that you  avoid a potentially dangerous situation.
  2. Monitor the weather conditions.  Watch the sky for any signs of a developing or approaching storm, particularly if you need a long time to get to a safe place.
  3. If the sky looks threatening or you hear thunder, immediately seek safety inside a substantial building.  If a substantial building is not available, take shelter in a hard-topped metal vehicle.  Remain there for at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning is seen or the last thunder is heard.  Some lightning victims have made the mistake of returning outdoors before the threat is over.
  4. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you should avoid things that increase your risk of being struck.  Remember, though, to substantially lower the risk to being struck, you must get inside.  In these instances 1) avoid tall objects such as tall trees and poles,  2) avoid things that conduct electricity such as metal bleachers or wire fences, 3) try to get to a safe place as fast as you can.
  5. If you or your children are involved in organized, outdoor recreational activities, make sure in advance that the officials in charge have and follow a specific lightning safety plan.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Coaches, umpires, referees, or camp counselors must learn to protect the safety of the participants by stopping the activities early, so that there is sufficient amount of time for the participants and spectators to get to a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant.  In certain instances, substantial buildings may not be available for shelter, and cars and buses may provide the best protection, but be sure the windows are closed and that the occupants avoid contact with any metal in the vehicle.
  6. Finally, don’t forget the safety of your outside pets.  Dog houses are not safe, and dogs which are chained to metal chains or wire runners are particularly vulnerable to a nearby lightning strike.
Lightning Hitting a Tree

Lightning Hitting a Tree


An AM radio can be used to monitor for any lightning activity.  Tune the radio to an unused frequency
and listen for the static caused by a lightning discharge.  Your radio will be able to pick up this static from greater distances than you’d be able to hear thunder.


Are there any signs that a lightning strike is imminent?

ANSWER:  Sometimes, but not always.  In either case, there is little, if any, time to take action to protect yourself.  Some of the signs include 1) your hair stands on end (as charges from the ground surge to the top of your head), 2) you hear a distinctive snapping or crackling sound (small discharges of static electricity may occur in an area where lightning is about to strike), 3) you experience a tingling sensation (electrical charges may be moving through your body), 4) there is a sudden increase in the static on portable electronic devices (electrical charges may be moving through the devices, and 5) an abnormal burning smell in the air (static
discharges within the air give off an unusual odor).  If you see any of these signs, lightning is about to strike you or somewhere very near you.  It is extremely important that you plan ahead to avoid this situation. You could be killed at any instant.

For additional information about lightning or lightning safety, visit NOAA’s Lightning Safety Awareness web site.

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