Lightning Myths: Fact or Fiction

Electrical storms are dangerous so learning the truth about lightning behavior could save your life or minimize injury.

According to the National Weather Service, “lightning kills on average more than 70 people and injures at least 300 each year in the U.S.”

The National Weather Service also states, “While only about 10 percent of those struck are killed, the large majority of the 90 percent who survive suffer long-term injuries”.

Here are some beliefs about lightning and whether they are lightning facts or fiction.

There is no danger from lightning if it’s not raining.

🚫 Fiction

Some thunderstorms produce little rain so it can be deceiving. Lighting can strike when the rain is up to 15-25 miles away from the storm. Even if no thunder is heard, lighting can be present because light travels faster than the speed of sound.

As a storm gets closer, the intervals between lightning and thunder will become shorter. You can estimate how far a storm is away by counting the time-lapse between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder. Every five seconds equals one mile.



As soon as you count a 30-second lapse between lightning and thunder, it’s time to go indoors. You should stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder.

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Rubber-soled shoes or rubber car tires will provide protection against getting hit by lightning.

🚫 Fiction

There is no protection provided by car tires or rubber-soled shoes. Cars with a metal top and frame can offer some protection but it’s not due to the tires.

People who are struck by lightning should not be touched because they carry an electrical charge.

🚫 Fiction

The human body does not store electricity so it is safe to touch a person who is struck by lightning. In fact, it is important to get help for the victim and administer first aid as soon as possible.

Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

🚫 Fiction

Lightning can strike one location numerous times. Some places seem to be more vulnerable. The Empire State Building is struck by lightning on average 100 times each year.

Heat lightning which occurs on hot summer evenings is just a natural phenomenon and is non-threatening.

🚫 Fiction

It is real lightning from a thunderstorm that is still too far away for thunder to be heard.

Cars are a safe place to be during a lightning storm.

💯 Fact

If caught outdoors, try to find a car if it’s not possible to get into an enclosed building. If the car has a metal top and sides and if the windows and doors are kept shut, it is safe as long as a person does not touch any metal parts.

The tires do not provide insulation. It’s the metal frame that allows the lightning to travel along the surface of the vehicle and to the ground. A convertible does not offer protection.

Take cover under a tree or a partially enclosed shelter during a thunderstorm.

🚫 Fiction

Although there is no place that is totally safe from lightning, certain locations are more vulnerable. Lightning has a tendency to strike tall structures like towers, trees, and utility poles.

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Open-air structures such as park bleachers, picnic shelters, gazebos, carports, golf carts, and bus shelters are also unsafe. Permanently enclosed structures such as a house, office building, or store offer the best protection.

If you are caught in the woods during a lightning storm, take shelter under the shorter trees.

If you are outside during a thunderstorm and have no place to take shelter, lie flat on the ground.

🚫 Fiction

The chances of being struck by lightning increases if you are on the ground because an electrical current runs along the ground.

If caught outside and cannot seek shelter, get as low as you can, and make as little contact with the ground as possible. This is done by squatting low and touching the ground only with your toes. Tuck your head between your knees and wrap your hands on your knees.

Stay away from metal objects such as golf clubs, fences, and poles because they are conductors of electricity. In addition, stay away from other people in order to prevent the current from traveling from one person to another.

Lightning can travel along telephone lines, electrical lines, and plumbing.

💯 Fact

Power lines, telephone wires, and metal pipes act as conduits for electrical currents caused by lightning.

During a storm, do not use the phone or take a shower or bath. Unplug appliances such as televisions and computers. Stay away from appliances and anything metal. Avoid being near windows.

Lightning rods attract lightning.

🚫 Fiction

Lightning rods are not lightning magnets but they do provide a path for lightning to safely reach the ground and discharge. They help reduces the build-up of an opposing charge by bleeding off the build-up of “static” or stationary energy. This is much like putting a hole in a balloon to bleed off pressure before it pops from overfilling.

Surge protectors save electronic appliances from damage caused by lightning strikes.

🚫 Fiction

Surge protectors protect utility lines from power surges caused by the utility company but they don’t protect appliances against lightning strikes.

To be effective against lightning damage, surge protectors must be combined with a total system of lightning rods and proper grounding.

A lightning arrestor is filled with gas that serves as an open circuit. If lighting travels down the line, the gas gap becomes ionized and diverts the electrical current to the ground.

Lightning is one force of nature that has to be treated with respect because it is very dangerous.

Sources:

  • American Red Cross
  • National Weather Service
  • Science for Kids
  • How Stuff Works

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