Nearly all of us have probably had some sort of close encounter with lightning. At one time or another we have ignored the danger of an approaching storm to complete that last bit of yard work or putt out on the 18th green. We tend to think the odds of lightning striking us are small, but how foolish we can be. It is, in fact, the number two storm killer (behind floods) in the U. S., causing more deaths than tornadoes and hurricanes.
Cloud to ground lightning is extremely fast, hot, and powerful. A lightning discharge occurs over the span of 100 milliseconds, heating the air around it to 15,000 to 60,000 degrees Farenheit and carrying a peak energy of up to 30,000 amps. Yet people are repeatedly willing to accept the risk of coming into contact with something so deadly.
A 1997 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed 35 years of lighting injury and fatality data in the U. S. Some of the study’s interesting findings include:
- 84 percent of injury and fatality victims were male.
- June, July, and August accounted for 21 percent, 30 percent and 22 percent of incidents, respectively.
- The peak period for incidents was 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
- Incidents were most common on Saturday, Wednesday, and Sunday.
Data analyzed by the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI) from 1990 – 2003 revealed that there were 756 U.S. fatalities during that time period. Florida, with 126 fatalities, was the most deadly state by far, followed by Texas (52), and Colorado (39). Many of the western states had high per capita death rates , led by Wyoming at 2.02 deaths per million people.
What can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from lightning? The NLSI offers some personal safety tips on its website. Of primary importance is planning our outdoor activities around the weather so we are not caught outside unaware. If you find yourself outside with a storm approaching, avoid bodies of water, open spaces, and high ground. Additionally, you should avoid contact with metal objects, including electrical wiring and fencing. Maintain a distance of at least 15 feet between people. If you are inside, stay away from doors and windows, water sources, electrical appliances, computers, and land-line telephones.
As you plan and participate in outdoor activities this summer, make sure that you give lightning the respect it deserves. Have you ever had a close encounter with lightning?