Lightning occurs when the attraction between the negative charges at the bottom of the cloud and the positive charges on the ground is strong enough. The lightning we see is actually the return stroke; when the positive charges move up to the cloud.
From Benjamin Franklin’s dangerous experiment involving lightning, a kite, and a metal key (and this man was a genius?), we know that lightning is a form of electricity. In fact, it’s a giant electrical spark. The spark is caused by the ice and water in a cloud, rubbing together and causing static electricity.
Lightning is dangerous because it strikes objects—including people—directly.
It can start fires or kill someone. Believe me, you’ll either be dead or not feeling too hot (sorry) after getting whacked by lightning—each spark can reach more than eight kilometers, hit temperatures of 28,000 degrees Celsius, and contain 100 million electrical volts. Pretty dangerous stuff!
Lightning kills more people than hurricanes or tornadoes.
t’s unpredictable and does strange things—it can even destroy a tree. Lightning can heat up the sap in the tree’s trunk. The sap becomes steam, which expands and, wham! Kablooey! The tree blows apart.
Lightning does strike twice, and sometimes more.
Park ranger Roy Sullivan holds the record for surviving lightning strikes. Between 1942 and his death in 1983, he was struck seven times. The first lightning strike shot through Sullivan’s leg and knocked off his big toenail. That’s gotta hurt.
What You Can do to Avoid Death or Injury from Lightning Strikes
Lightning is fascinating and even beautiful. But it can kill instantly unless people act sensibly during a storm.
Lightning is an incredibly powerful force of nature. According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, a lightning bolt can contain up to 30,000 amps and can generate temperatures as high as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (27,760 degrees C). And it’s not just something that happens directly under a cloud; bolts have been known to strike more than ten miles (16km) from a thunderstorm. (Weather Report LaMarre, Brian “Florida and Lightning: a combination to take seriously” floridadisaster.org)
Before the lightning rod became part of building design, a lightning strike to an unprotected structure was often devastating. The Lightning Safety Alliance of Hartford Connecticut notes that lightning carries up to 100 million volts of electricity, which gives it the ability to blow holes in roofs, explode brick walls, shatter concrete and start destructive fires.(October 4, 2009 “Public Urged to Assist with Lightning Research Project” lightningsafetyalliance.com)
Ironically, our modern use of electricity has made lightning even more destructive and costly than it was a century ago. Lightning can surge through power lines, damaging everything from power cables to electronic equipment including computers, televisions, stereos, security systems, motors in refrigerators and freezers, telephones, and any other appliances that are connected to the electricity supply.
Lightning’s Place in History
From thousands of years of observation humankind eventually came to understand the nature of lightning and how we can defend ourselves against its effects. Lightning gave humans the gift of fire. The fire could be used to ignite torches and frighten dangerous animals. It also enabled early humans to bring light inside caves where sunlight couldn’t reach.
In his book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World author Jack Weatherford tells us that Piano di Carpini, the first European envoy to the Mongols, wrote that Genghis Khan died when he was struck by lightning. (Weatherford, Jack. 2004 Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Crown Publishers)
And it’s an American legend that inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod and became world-famous as a result.
Lightning Kills Around 90 Americans Annually
According to statistics compiled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on average 90 people are killed by lightning every year in the US. Lightning also injures hundreds of others and causes billions of dollars in property damage. (NOAA Technical Memorandum NWSR193 nssl.noaa.gov)
An article written by Joshua Foer on the Slate website tells how lightning struck Jerry LeDoux in August 1999. He was standing ankle-deep in a puddle. Half an hour later he came to, twenty feet away. The soles of his shoes had melted, a two-way radio he was carrying had exploded, and several of his teeth had shattered. The medical ID tag he wore around his neck had melted into his chest.(Foer, Joshua “Don’t Stand by Me” slate.msn.com)
Luckily, Jerry survived his encounter with lightning, but it’s a force that’s a lot more powerful than we are. There are several things anyone can do to protect themselves from the destructive forces of lightning.
Basic Guidelines for Personal Safety
The Lightning Protection Institute based in Maryville, Missouri has compiled a set of lightning safety guidelines to help ensure maximum personal safety. These are downloadable in PDF format from the LPI’s website. (“Shelter from the Storm – Lightning Safety Tips” lightning.org)
- Stand clear from windows, doors, and electrical appliances.
- Unplug appliances well before a storm nears – never during.
- Avoid contact with piping including sinks, baths, and faucets.
- Do not use the telephone (including cellphones) except for emergencies.
Outdoors, look for a shelter equipped with a lightning protection system. These are often found at golf courses, public parks, and swimming pools. If such a shelter is unavailable, take these precautions:
Get into a hard-topped car. Roll up the windows and don’t touch anything metal inside the car.
- Never use a tree as a shelter.
- Avoid areas that are higher than the surrounding landscape.
- Keep away from all metal objects.
- Avoid standing near tall objects.
- Get away from any bodies of water, large or small.
- Spread out and don’t stand with other people.
If you feel a tingling sensation or your hair stands on end, lightning may be about to strike. Crouch down and cover your ears, but don’t lie down or place your hands on the ground.
Whether you’re indoors or outdoors when a lightning storm begins, wait at least 30 minutes after the last lightning strike or clap of thunder before you resume what you were doing before.
Whenever you see lightning or hear thunder, take shelter. The eMedicinehealth website tells us: “Lightning can travel 10-12 miles ahead of a storm and seem to come out of a clear blue sky.” Get under cover immediately and don’t wait for the storm to arrive. (“Lightning Strike Overview” emedicinehealth.com)
Lightning has always held a fascination for mankind, but it can be just as deadly as it is beautiful. Give lightning the respect it deserves and you won’t become a victim of this awesome natural force.