I often get asked about lightning safety. There are
several reasons why people ask me. One is because I spend
so much time out in the middle of storms. Another is
because I have worked in the safety field for almost
thirty years. I taught driver education at the high
school and college levels for about ten years. Then I
became the Safety Coordinator for the City of Tucson.
This experience has taught me a lot about safety.
Along the way life has taught me some other lessons
which can be applied to safety, as well. For instance, I
have learned that there are things that you can do
something about, and there are things that you can't
change. For example, you can make a lot of difference in
how you live your life and what your future holds by the
way you behave and the kind of education you acquire. On
the other hand, you can't do a lot about the genetic hand
you are dealt in life, not yet, anyway.
In the world of safety there are risks that you can do
a lot about and others that you can't effect so much. One
of the tricks to being safe as you go through life is
take action where you can be effective and not worry too
much about those risks you can't do much about. For
instance, you can wear a helmet when you ride your bike.
You might still crash and get some road rash, or break an
arm or leg or something. But you've greatly reduced the
chances of a serious head injury. A broken arm can mess
up your life for a while, but you can live with it. A
broken brain box is a different matter all together.
So what's all this got to do with lightning and storm
safety? Well, there are some things that you can easily
do to protect yourself from the effects of weather. And
there are some weather effects that you may not be able
to do much about. Once again, the trick is knowing the
difference between the two.
Large structures with steel framework, like high-rise
downtown office buildings, are pretty safe, but you
probably still need to stay off the phone and away from
the plumbing. On the other hand, sun or rain shelters,
like park ramadas, are bad places to be during
Since there aren't a lot of actual Faraday cages lying
around, an all-metal car makes a good makeshift Faraday
cage in a pinch. Soft top convertibles or
Fiberglas-roofed utility vehicles won't work. Some people
think that it is the car's rubber tires that provide the
protection, but it isn't. Think about it. This big
electric arc can jump an air gap that is miles across! It
isn't about to be stopped by an inch or so of rubber. If
that worked, your sneaker soles would provide you
protection while walking in the open, but they don't.
What happens when a bolt strikes a Faraday cage, or an
all-metal car, is that the current spreads out across the
conductive metal surfaces and eventually passes to the
ground, either through the tires or over their wet
surface. As long as you aren't in contact with the car
body, you're protected from the electrical current. You
may get some hearing damage from the thunderclap, or your
eyes might get a retinal after-image that stays with you
for hours,; but your body will be left relatively
Let's digress a moment and talk about those rubber
tires. They're actually not just rubber, but a
combination a fabric plies and rubber combined in a mold
by a high temperature process called vulcanizing. Now,
what heat puts together, heat takes apart. So if your car
gets hit by lightning, and the current travels to ground
through the tires, they may pop or may just partially
delaminate. If they only suffer delimitation damage, you
may drive off on them, only to have them blow out later
on as you're driving down the road. There's another way
the lightning's effect could hurt you.
An acquaintance once told me about how his brother was
killed by lightning as he was driving down a highway on
his motorcycle. The bolt struck him in the head and
exited the motorcycle where the tires were touching the
pavement. He said both tires were blown out and there
were holes blown in the asphalt pavement, too. Why not,
the pavement, like the tires, is made by a heat process.
So, are there other ways to reduce the chances of
being struck by lightning? Sure there are. What are the
odds, anyway? We haven't really talked about that yet.
We're not exactly sure how many people are
"struck" by lightning. The word
"struck" means different things to different
people. (Not, like, people with three eyes kind of
different; just; you know, different.) Maybe we could
agree that we will use the term "struck" to
mean physically affected by lightning. There can be
mental and emotional effects, as well, but we will ignore
these for now.
There are four common ways that lightning can physically effect people or other animals. These are:
Wow, we've come a long way from where we started -
talking about the odds of getting hit. Let's get back to
that. Let's answer an easier question, first. What are
the odds of getting killed by lightning? We have better
(not perfect) records of that. According to the National
Safety Council, who keep track of things like this,
somewhere between a low of around 70 and a high of around
120 people a year are killed in the United States by
lightning. So, there are good years and bad years. That's
out of a population that the U.S. Census Bureau, who keep
track of things like population numbers, tells is around
265 million people. Around 100 people (I like nice round
numbers) out of 265,000,000 - you have a better chance of
winning your state lottery than being killed by
lightning! Still, if you are one of the 100, it's a major
Since the numbers are so small, can you just ignore the danger? No. Many more people are injured than are killed. The long term effects can be painful and physically and/or mentally disabling. So much so that there is a national support group for the victims of lightning and other severe electrical shock.
Other weather-related phenomena can and do injure and
kill, too. Floods, hurricanes and tornadoes quickly come
to mind. Some of the most dramatic weather events are so
scary that most people treat them with respect and make
efforts to seek shelter or move out of their path if
there is enough advance warning. Some are more sinister.
Exposure is a physical effect of extreme temperatures.
Out here in the desert, where we live, people often
succumb to both the heat and the cold. Hyperthermia and
dehydration kill lost hikers or motorists who break down
and were unprepared to survive until rescued. It can hit
120° F in our summer months, and at those temperatures
the heat can suck you dry as a prune in no time. Having
plenty of water and some good shade is essential to
You can get too cold out here in the summer, as well,
strange as that may seem. Our mountains attract hikers
and campers who want to escape the heat found on the
desert floor. First time visitors to Tucson are often
amazed to find that we have a ski lift here in town. Mt.
Lemmon is some 9000 feet high and often gets enough snow
to support skiing throughout our winter months, which are
admittedly fewer than back in Vermont where we lived
before moving here.
The temperature drops fast as night falls and if you
are caught out in shorts and a tee shirt you can get in
trouble with the cold. Winds in the mountains can add to
the problem of hypothermia. Exposure from either heat or
cold causes disorientation which compounds the problem of
being lost. A cold rain can further the effects and
quickly lead to severe results, including death. Dressing
in layers and carrying sufficient food and water are a
must out here and in many other parts of the country.
And while you're up there hiking in the mountains,
watch out for that other weather phenomena that
accompanies those mountain storms - lightning. Where
lightning injuries are concerned, it used to be that one
of the most at-risk groups in the country was farmers.
there were a lot of them, they rode high up on open
tractors, and often worked through storms trying to
minimize damage and crop loss.
As the family farm has been nearly squeezed out of
existence, economically, there are far fewer farmers
around these days. Also, the tractor has evolved into a
larger, full metal cab equipped machine with air
conditioning. The full metal cab acts like a Faraday
cage. Farmers, therefore, no longer comprise the highest
segment of lightning-injured among Americans.
That dubious honor is fast falling to recreationists.
Hikers, boaters, swimmers, campers, cyclists, golfers,
etc. are often out in the open, exposed to the
capriciousness of the most whimsical of all weather
phenomena - lightning. These people are often out of
touch with the communication systems that provide early
warning. They are also often far from suitable shelter.
The result is that they are becoming the leading group of
There is some disagreement as to what the best
strategy is to avoid being struck when caught out in the
open. Contemporary wisdom for years held that you should
avoid lone objects, such as trees, or high points, such
as hill tops. This wisdom further concluded that you
should seek out a low depression and crouch, not lie
Dr. N. Kitagawa, an atmospheric physicist in Japan,
did a lengthy study on lightning victims in his country.
He found that some people who were crouching during a
storm were hit and killed, but found no one who was
killed while lying down. What does this mean? It could
mean that people are so thoroughly indoctrinated with the
contemporary wisdom that no one was lying down. But
probably not. There are few, if any, contemporary wisdoms
that are universally adopted. Maybe there is something
different about the terrain or the lightning in Japan.
It would be interesting to see lightning deaths broken
down statistically by the mechanism of injury. For
instance, if you are lying down, it seems logical that
you would be more susceptible to injury from a step
current. On the other hand, those crouching might be more
at risk from a direct strike if their head were the high
point in the surrounding landscape. The type of earth you
were on would effect the electrical resistance
encountered by lightning as it radiated out from its
contact point. This would effect the likelihood of having
two feet anchored to pieces of ground at differing
electrical potentials - the step current hazard.
As you can see, there is a lot we don't know about all
of this. Maybe you will be the one to study this
phenomena and unlock some of its secrets.
Getting back to the hazards of weather, flooding is a
big one. Flood waters do a lot of property damage, and
out here in the desert we have floods, too. It seems
strange that you would ever have floods in a desert, but
we do. At times we have flooding problems without having
any rain. The rain occurs up in the nearby mountains and
runs down into the desert valley watercourses.
When these events happen quickly, they are called
flash floods. An actual wall of water can come flowing
down the streambed. Flash floods are very powerful. They
will wash away anything in their path. Each year in
Arizona we have motorists who try to cross these flowing
waters where they cut across roads. These flooded wash
crossing are very dangerous and many a motorist has lost
their vehicle while attempting such a crossing. Some lost
their lives, as well.
All Images And Text Are The Copyrighted
Property Of Striking Images