Lightning Awareness and Safety

June 19, 2023 // Article by: Brad Miller

As the seasons change from spring to summer, more people start to spend longer time outdoors. But with the hustle and bustle of summertime fun, we can't forget about the dangers that come with thunderstorms. Meteorologists have a general idea of where and when thunderstorms will occur on a given day, but it's the localized impacts of a storm that make them tough to forecast. Lightning, for instance, is particularly dangerous.  It is very localized and difficult to predict just where and when lightning will occur during any given storm. So, let's review some safety tips. 

Before we dive into lightning safety, we first need to understand how lightning develops. Within a thunderstorm, there are many moving parts. Negative and positive charges are created and then separated at opposite ends of the clouds as a result of updrafts and downdrafts moving raindrops and hailstones. Once this charge separation occurs, lightning is able to form. 

There are four types of lightning: cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, intra cloud, and cloud to air. The most harmful of the four of course is the cloud to ground type. This occurs when charges formed from the cloud find a channel through the air and to the ground. If you see an approaching thunderstorm, be aware that a storm only needs to be within 10 to 15 miles before lightning becomes dangerous. If you what to estimate lightning distance do this: when you see a flash, count the number of seconds until you hear thunder and divide by 5. The result is the distance to the lightning strike. But, one should never mess around with lightning. If you hear thunder, then you are close enough to get struck by lightning. Remember, when thunder roars, go indoors.

So, how do you protect yourself from lightning? Indoors is the safest place during a thunderstorm. When inside, avoid electrical equipment and plumbing. Also, avoid contact with water such as taking a shower, washing dishes, or doing laundry. Stay away from windows, doors, porches, and even the garage. Also, do not lie on concrete floors or lean on concrete walls. The most interior room on the lowest level of a house is the safest place (ex. closet, pantry) during a thunderstorm.

If you are outdoors, keep moving to find a safe shelter. There is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely cannot find a shelter, stay away from hills, trees (especially isolated ones), poles and fence rows. Keep in mind, baseball dugouts (or similar shelters), highway overpasses, and bodies of water do not protect you from lightning. Cars with hard top roofs do provide safety because the electricity from the lightning will go around the metal frame into the ground; therefore, do not lean against car doors during a thunderstorm.

Here are a few facts about lightning:

Finally, we get a lot of questions about what exactly is heat lightning. Heat lightning is not the result of a very hot day at a particular location. In fact, it is an actual thunderstorm that is so far away that a person can see the lightning from it, but not hear the thunder. This is because light can travel farther than sound, so the sound of the thunder dissipates before it reaches the observer.