Lightning Stats and Safety

In previous posts, I have talked about how thunderstorms develop and also how to make better use of weather forecasts, before you head outside in the summer.

In this week’s post, I will talk about how lightning can hurt you, and some things you can do to protect yourself, if you happen to get caught outdoors in a thunderstorm, with nowhere to hide.

Some Lightning Stats

So far in 2018, there have been 15 people killed by lightning in the United States. Last year the total number of fatalities was 16. The year before that, 2016, was the deadliest year in the last 10, with 40 lightning deaths. The average number of lightning fatalities per year in the U.S. for the last 10 years is 27 people.

Interestingly, that number is nearly identical to the average number of avalanche fatalities per year in the United States, over the last 10 winters, an average of 26 people died in avalanches each year.

Neither of these stats takes into account how many people are injured by lightning or avalanches. Those numbers are much higher. For lightning, it is estimated that around 250 people a year sustain injuries.

Based on the current population of the United States, the National Weather Service has calculated that your odds of being stuck by lightning in a given year, resulting in injury or death, is more than one in a million. (To be exact, the odds are 1 in 1,171,000).

The odds of you being struck by lightning in your lifetime, if you live to 80 years old, are somewhat less than one in 15,000. (Precise odds: 1 in 14,600).

Of all outdoor activities, fishing leads the nation in lightning fatalities. Soccer typically leads the way as the most dangerous sport.

How to be Safe

A single lightning bolt generates up to around 100 million volts of electricity, for a split second. During that split second, the temperature of a lightning bolt can reach 54,000-degrees Fahrenheit, or about five times hotter than the temperature of the sun.

There are a few ways that the electrical energy and heat from lightning hurt you: 1) Direct strike, 2) Conduction, 3) Side-flash and 4) Ground currents. Direct hits and conduction only account for about 20-percent of all lightning casualties. Side-flash accounts for about 30-percent and ground currents account for the other 50-percent.

There is not much we can do to protect ourselves from a direct hit, that’d just be really bad luck. Conduction is something we can protect ourselves from, by not being near any metal or graphite objects (that fishing rod) or standing in water. Side-flash injuries are not as avoidable, as any bolt that hits nearby will generate some heat and electricity.

Think of a lightning bolt like a hand grenade, a standard U.S. Army grenade has a kill radius of around 25 feet and a casualty (injury) radius of roughly 50-feet. So, to play it safe out on the battlefield, spread your troops out. That way, if someone does go down after the explosion, others in the group can give aid.

Same thing goes when you are outside, hiking in the mountains, for instance. Spread the members of your party out, 25 to 50 feet when lightning is nearby.

Michaela Ellingson demonstrates the three Lightning Positions to protect you from ground current . 1) Stand with feet together. 2) Feet together in a crouch, may also protect you some from side-flash. 3) Sit “Indian-style”.

Feet Together

While ground current kills or injures the most people every year, it is perhaps the easiest to protect ourselves from. If you find yourself outside in the heat of battle, with lightning striking nearby, then stand with both feet together.

When a bolt hits nearby, the ground current radiates out in all directions and travels through the ground. If your feet are apart, the current can go up one leg, through your body and then exit out the other leg. Taking the path of least resistance for the electricity.

By keeping your feet together at all times, you might take a bump from the ground current, but your vital organs will be spared, hopefully.

Sitting Indian-style (can I say that these days?), with your legs crossed is also acceptable. However, lying down in a tent is not, as too many different parts of your body are contacting the ground. And by the way, that camp pad does not insulate you from ground currents.

As far as spreading out goes, you and your tent mate might want to “ro-sham-bo” to see who gets to go stand outside, 50 feet away, during the height of the thunderstorm.

Heeding some of this advice might just prevent you from becoming a lightning statistic.

(This content first appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, August 1, 2018)

Posted August 10, 2018 by meteorologist Jim Woodmencey