Lightning is a fascinating spectacle. The average lightning bolt can heat the air to temperatures five times hotter than the sun, the heat it generates causes vibrations resulting in the sound of thunder, and contrary to popular belief, lightning has been known to strike the same place twice. But much like other beautiful and turbulent phenomena found in nature, lightning is best observed from a safe distance.
As you can imagine, the most dangerous place to be during a thunderstorm is outside. Weather services and educational initiatives like Lightning Safety Awareness Week have helped keep the public safe and aware of the risks of taking chances with lightning. In fact, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) created their lightning safety campaign, they developed the familiar slogan, “When thunder roars, go indoors!”
Fortunately, lightning-related deaths have steadily decreased over the years. According to USA Today, the drop in lightning-related deaths are linked to a large population of people choosing urban regions over rural regions. Interestingly enough, the 1940’s had the largest number of recorded lightning deaths in history, averaging to around 100 deaths per year. This has mostly to do with the number of farmers operating machinery outside during storms.
Despite the declining number of lightning deaths, there was still a significant number reported in 2017, mostly in areas like Florida and Texas. In California, camping was dubbed the number one reason for lightning deaths. California also averages around 80,000 cloud-to-ground strikes a year, each bolt containing up to one billion volts of electricity.
What to do during a thunderstorm
Regardless if you’re outside or indoors during a thunderstorm, there are several safety protocols you can follow to ensure safe distance from lightning.
If you’re outdoors:
- NOAA recommends that you find an enclosed shelter like a building or car to wait out the storm.
- If you can’t find shelter, get low to the ground or find a ditch to stand in. If you’re walking out, walk downhill.
- Avoid places like open fields or tops of hills where you are vulnerable to a lightning strike.
- Stay away from water, a conductor of electricity, including large bodies like beaches or lakes.
- Don’t risk it — if you hear thunder, take shelter immediately.
If you’re indoors:
- Don’t attempt to shower, bathe, or use the sink during a storm, as lightning can travel through pipes.
- Stay away from using corded electronic devices but don’t attempt to unplug them during a storm.
- Position yourself towards the center of your home and avoid the windows and doors.
- Avoid concrete floors and walls, most have metal wires that run through them.
What should you do if you see someone struck by lightning?
People who are struck by lightning may experience cardiac arrest. If you see someone struck by lightning, call 911 immediately. When people are struck, their bodies do not retain an electrical charge so it’s safe to touch them. CPR can be conducted on individuals who are not breathing or conscious in an effort to resuscitate them. As always, ensure you are clear of any present danger before attempting to assist someone else. In the case where victims of lightning strikes do not experience cardiac arrest, they most likely will experience muscle soreness, headaches, confusion, and severe burns. Again, anyone who is struck by lightning needs emergency medical care immediately.
Although lightning is spectacular to watch, play it safe by educating yourself about the dangers of thunderstorms. For more information on lightning safety, visit the NOAA’s lightning safety page.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.