My hope is through this post, we can further education about lightning and lightning safety in New England. Please feel free to share with friends and family to help spread the knowledge.
The tragic news of losing one of our New England family following a lightning strike to a woman on an Ipswich, Massachusetts, beach this weekend hits home for the meteorological community. First and foremost, of course, thoughts and sympathy are extended to the family and friends of Marguerite Tomany, a 61 year-old from Thompson, Connecticut, for their sudden loss. The second component of this is that no person who falls victim to the weather should die in vain - that is, if we can use this tragic experience to enhance our knowledge, understanding, and preparation for life-threatening weather, and especially thunderstorms, we can know our community will be made more aware and weather-ready.
First, the biggest mistakes made with lightning storms (thunderstorms):
- Underestimating how far lightning can strike from a storm - up to 10 miles! Ipswich residents reported to me that lightning was striking from blue sky, well ahead of this storm.
- Underestimating how fast storms can move in: Speed can be anywhere from 10 to 70 mph, depending upon the steering wind aloft
Next, THE MOST IMPORTANT POINTS of lightning safety:
- NO PLACE OUTDOORS IS SAFE. This applies to standing in a field, standing under a tree, hiking, being in an open shelter like a dugout, clubhouse, bus stop, and most golf course rain shelters - if it's outside and it's open (or even not grounded) it's not safe. Period.
- CROUCHING, GETTING ON THE BALLS OF YOUR FEET, LAYING DOWN, ETC. ARE ALL EPIC WASTES OF YOUR TIME. In years past, and for many years, all of these methods were taught. None are effective, some create more danger, and all increase risk because they take valuable time you should be running for real shelter.
- A CAR IS SAFE. Thanks to the metal cage that surrounds you, a car is safe, as long as the windows are closed.
- WHEN INDOORS, AVOID PLUG-IN APPLIANCES AND THE SHOWER. Remember that the electricity grid that powers our home connects to both power lines on power poles, and underground wiring. Surges of electricity through either of these methods can electrocute those using appliances in the home. AN UNPLUGGED CELL PHONE IS SAFE. A LANDLINE PHONE IS NOT. Similarly, surges of electricity can travel through water piping, so showering during a lightning storm is not safe.
Other lightning safety tips and facts:
- LIGHTNING IS NOT ATTRACTED TO TALL OBJECTS, BUT DOES TEND TO STRIKE THEM. This is a bit confusing, I suppose - but lightning is not *attracted* to tall objects. That is, you can have an oak tree and a blade of grass next to each other, and there is no guarantee lightning will strike the oak tree, and certainly may strike the grass instead. That said, tall objects are struck more often, incluing trees, tall buildings, etc.
- LIGHTNING IS NOT ATTRACTED TO METAL, AND DOES NOT TEND TO STRIKE IT. It's true - put a wooden rod and metal rod of same size and shape right next to each other, generate a lightning strike, and science shows, neither is more likely to get struck. Lightning DOES travel quickly through metal, though, and travels around the outside of such objects - which is why the car is safe (with the windows up), as the electricity can travel without much resistance into the ground, around the outside of the car. Because lightning travels through metal easily, stories of hot umbrella handles, tingling golf clubs and the like are due to indirect flow of electricity, not that these objects attract lightning.
- LIGHTNING IS NOT ATTRACTED TO WATER - BUT TRAVELS QUICKLY THROUGH IT. This is why we always say get out of the water if storms approach - you can be swimming in the lake or ocean, have lightning strike somewhere else in the water or a tree adjacent to it, and travel in fractions of a second to your location.
- LIGHTNING IS FIVE TIMES HOTTER THAN THE SURFACE OF THE SUN - About 55,000° Farenheit! Imagine the immense power associated with a bolt, which consists of the interaction of the ground and clouds that build miles above our heads into the sky.
Some important thoughts about lightning:
- CONSIDER THE POWER - will rubber soles, rubber tires, laying down versus standing up, standing on the balls of your feet, etc., really have any impact on where something five times hotter than the sun from miles in the sky strikes? Of course not!
- RESPECT THE POWER - Watch the forecast. Download a mobile app (like the NECN app) with live and forecast radar. When weather threatens, seek substantial shelter sooner, not later. Understand that lightning can FORK or BRANCH OUT, meaning indirect strikes can happen anywhere near the main bolt.
- DON'T TEMPT FATE - Sheltering under trees, standing on the balls of your feet in a field, and other actions that keep you outside only keep you from getting to substantial shelter.
- BAD LUCK IS A REALITY. This one sounds strange, but here's what I mean - I make it a point to read the local newspaper articles of every lightning fatality in the United States, so I can learn from them. Consider one man who wanted to walk his dog, and after the rain stopped, literally opened his door and took a step outside to see if it stopped raining. It had. Lightning struck him dead in that step out the door. Another man worked for a utility company - they all put a plastic cover on the ground-level project they were working on and huddled in the truck for safety. The wind kicked up and blew the cover off, he jumped out of the truck to put it back on...and was struck dead right there, outside the truck, in those few seconds. Both of these are stories of terrible luck, and sometimes there's little you can do about it...but what we can do is be indoors when lightning threatens. Anytime we are outside, we accept the possibility that lightning may strike if we have that bad luck.
If we can keep some of this in mind, hopefully this tragic event for New England can further the learning. My favorite site for more lightning information is struckbylightning.org - a site founded by lightning strike survivor Michael Utley, who has touched more than a million lives with his educational work.