Lightning safety

Sort out the myths from the facts when it comes to lightning safety

Lightning storms are common all across the earth. While most people fear tornadoes more than lightning, it’s important to understand the danger that lightning poses, as well as where to take cover when a storm arises. Hint: it’s not under a tree. Know the difference between fact and fiction to stay safe during a storm.

1. Lightning can strike the same place twice.
The myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice is completely false. While it’s less likely for it to hit the same area on perfectly flat ground, places that act as a lightning rod — tall, pointed structures — can be struck very often. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 25 times per year, and has been hit as many as 12 times in a single storm.

2. Lightning doesn’t always strike tall objects.
Lightning is caused when two disparate charges attract each other. This can occur from sky to ground, sky to trees, or anywhere else. Lightning doesn’t discriminate in targets, and hits flat ground as often as it does taller objects.

3. Trees are extraordinarily dangerous in a storm.
Many people view trees as a safe place to seek shelter, feeling that the threat from lightning is the fire it can cause in a tree. The true threat comes from lightning dispersing into the ground underneath the tree, electrocuting anyone underneath. In fact, taking shelter under a tree is the second most common cause of death from lightning.

4. Lightning can strike far from the storm.
Lightning has been known to hit as far as three miles away from the storm, even if the sky seems clear. In certain cases, lightning can strike from a clear blue sky as far as fifteen miles from the storm. Specialized types of lightning called ‘anvil lightning’ have been known to hit 50 miles away in the right conditions. Lightning is dangerous even if you’re far from the storm.

5. Rubber tires won’t protect you.
Rubber is nonconductive, but that isn’t what protects passengers in a car from lightning. The safety comes from the roof and sides of the car acting as a Faraday cage and directing the charge around and away from the passengers. Vehicles that have plastic or fiberglass roofs — such as convertibles or jeeps — offer no protection at all.

6. You should curl into a ball, not lie flat.
If you’re caught in a storm, lying flat on the ground creates a larger potential surface area for lightning to strike you. It also extends the range in which ground charge from nearby strikes may reach you. It’s better to curl into a tight ball. However, the ideal situation is to seek shelter inside a building.

7. Lightning strike victims are safe to touch.
There is a belief that lightning strike victims hold an electrical charge. However, the human body cannot store electricity; it simply acts as a conduit. It’s perfectly okay to administer first aid to someone who has been struck by lightning. You’re safe.

8. Metal on the body does not attract lightning.
Many people are fearful of wearing metal jewelry or accessories during a storm out of a misguided belief that it attracts lightning. In fact, metal has almost nothing to do with where lightning will strike. That said, standing close to metal objects during a lightning storm can be dangerous because of the conductivity of metal; it can strengthen the charge and electrocute those standing nearby.

9. A home isn’t totally safe.
While it’s far better to be inside your home than outside during a storm, it isn’t perfectly safe. You’re less likely to be struck, but you should be cautious and stand away from the conduction lines in your home. Avoid using corded telephones or other electrical appliances, and stay away from windows.

10. Surge protectors do not protect against lightning.
Surge protectors are typically one-time use devices to protect electronic devices against a powerful surge of electricity. However, they offer virtually no protection against direct lightning strikes during a storm. Combined with a lightning protection system, they may offer more safeguards than alone, but surge protectors should always be replaced after they serve their purpose.

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