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Lightning Strikes and How to Prevent Injury and Damage

All year long, lightning strikes are part of life in the country. Arm yourself with enough lightning and thunderstorm knowledge to prevent any harm being done.

| September/October 2015

  • Lightning strike
    A thunderstorm produces lightning over a rural farm.
    Photo by iStockphoto.com
  • Lightning tree
    A damaged tree that has been struck by lightning.
    Photo by Lee H. Rentz

  • Lightning strike
  • Lightning tree

When I was young, I had a fear of thunderstorms – astraphobia as it’s called. I got this from my mother. No, not genetically, but she was scared of them, so I was, too. In time, though, my love for all things weather took over. As a budding meteorologist, I started to enjoy these raw displays of nature. Over the years, I’ve done some strange things during thunderstorms – I’ve played golf through them, and I also played tennis through one. But, so much for my eccentricities.

For “normal” folks, I would recommend a healthy respect for thunderstorms, something between hiding in a closet and sitting on your roof holding a metal golf club. The good news is that lightning kills very few people. In 2013, lightning killed 23 people in the United States – that was a record-low number. The worse news is that you can probably multiply that number by 10 to get the number of people injured by lightning – and some of them have been left with permanent disabilities.

Continuing along that line, thunderstorms occur in every state. Even Alaska gets many storms in its brief summer. The farther south you go, the more storms you get, and they can even occur in the winter. (Rarely in the North can you get lightning in the winter – the famed “thundersnow.”)

It is estimated that in one year, lightning hits the ground 25 million times somewhere in the U.S. Florida typically leads the country in lightning strikes and casualties. Southwest Florida is considered the lightning capital of the U.S. with some locations getting more than 100 thunderstorms a year. And although storms are most common in the late afternoon, they can occur at any time of the day.



The basics

Lightning is an electrical discharge in the atmosphere. Interestingly, it is a byproduct of those puffy cumulus clouds so common in the summer. As the cloud grows and produces liquid water and ice high up, an electrical field is generated. Lightning is common within the clouds themselves, but it’s the cloud-to-ground bolts we have to worry about. And, as you may have heard, electricity is flowing both down from the cloud and up from the ground. If these flows connect, then we get the full-blown lightning bolt. Obviously, people who are working outside are at a greater risk of getting hit by lightning. This is true for the home gardener, and it is especially true for the farmer or rancher who is out in open fields, often too busy to keep constant track of the weather.

So, how do you know if thunderstorms are possible? First, check the weather forecast, which will give you a probability of a thunderstorm occurring at your location. But it is impossible to know exactly where thunderstorms will develop in advance. Also, there are no “official” warnings for lightning like we have for tornadoes. If thunderstorms are forecast, the threat of lightning is inferred. Before you head outside, check the local weather radar. Televisions, computers, even phone apps let you do this. When you look at a weather radar display, you’ll see different colors – blue, green, yellow, red, etc. Those colors correspond to how hard it is raining.

Marion
9/12/2015 5:30:36 AM

Check out this site, its an international network of lighning detectors(also available for cellphone), it shows you all strikes worldwide and locally and every storm cell approaching. I live in one of Europes most thunderstorm prone areas , and here its commonly used every day during storm season. http://www.blitzortung.org/Webpages/index.php?lang=en&page_0=30






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