WX 101: Lightning

Weather 101: All
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Lightning may be an amazing sight, but it can be a dangerous one as well.  Every year there are 25 million lightning flashes just in the United States.  Lightning is a top three storm related killer in the United States, taking on average 39 people a year.  241 injuries are reported every year with many of those having permanent effects on the victim.  The following are facts about lightning, some of which you need to know to stay safe.

Lightning Safety

“When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.”  No place outside is safe during a thunderstorm.  If you hear lightning, then you’re within range of lightning to strike you.  The best way to stay safe is to have a safe place to go if a storm approaches.  A safe place is a building that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls, floor, and has plumbing or wiring.  Another safe place is an enclosed motor vehicle, but if the storm is severe, you probably don’t want to be in there.

Here are a few unsafe places:  Car ports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents, baseball dugouts, sheds, and greenhouses.

Here are a few unsafe vehicles:  golf carts, convertibles, motorcycles, or anything with an open cab.

Once inside, you’re not 100% safe from a lightning strike.  Stay off corded phones, but cell phones or cordless phones are ok.  Avoid using electrical equipment and avoid the cords as well.  Unplugging some electronics may save your equipment if lightning does strike.  Avoiding plumbing such as showers or sinks is also a good idea.  Finally, stay away from windows and doors and don’t lie against concrete floors or concrete walls.

If you’re unable to get to a safe place, then avoid open fields and tall isolated objects.  Much like when there’s a tornado, a ravine or low area is your safest place.  Staying away from water and metal objects are also good ideas.  Remember these are last resorts and they should only be used as last resorts. 

Even after a storm is over lightning can still occur.  It is a good rule of thumb to wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before returning to the outdoors. 

The Science

Lightning is a giant spark of electricity, typically from a thunderstorm.    As a storm grows precipitation will form within the cloud.  Small ice crystals will be highest parts of the cloud, a mixture of ice crystals and hail will be in the middle, and rain along with melting hail will be in the bottom.  The air movement and differing types of precipitation in the cloud cause a charge to form. 

Typically the ice crystals are lighter and will be charged positively.   Because they’re lighter, they’ll move to the upper part of the cloud.  The hail is usually negatively charged and moves to the bottom part of the cloud.  There’s also a small positive charge at the bottom of the cloud.  This causes the area below the cloud to develop a negative charge. 

The air between the cloud and ground will initially act as an insulator between the charges, but eventually the the difference get to large and a rapid discharge takes place.  This is the lightning strike.  Lightning can be over 5 miles lone, have temperatures around 50,000 degrees, and contain 100 million electrical volts. 

Thunder is the sound made by lightning and giving thunderstorms their name.  As lightning passes through the air, it heats the air.  The air will rapidly expand and creates a sound wave that we hear.  Thunder can be heard 10 miles away from a lightning strike.

Medical facts

Every year there are 39 people killed by lightning and 241 injuries.  It’s estimated that as many as 360 people may be injured by lightning, but some don’t report it.  Many of those injured may have long lasting affects  Here are some short-term symptoms:  Short-term memory loss, problems multitasking, personality change, inattentive, dizziness, ringing in the ears, etc.  Some things like seizure-like activity and depression may be delayed.  Anyone who has been struck by lightning should get immediate medical assistance. 

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