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Lightning Safety - OutdoorPlaces.Com

 Lightning Safety - OutdoorPlaces.Com


   Lighting Picture - Copyright Broderbund, Division of TLC, Division of Mattel
At any given moment there are approximately 2,000 thunderstorms on the planet earth.  Lightning strikes the surface 100 times per second.  Generally speaking, lightning activity increases with altitude and as you get close to the equator.  No one person is immune to being hit by lightning.  Over 7,700 people have died from lightning related injuries since 1940 according to the National Lightning Safety Institute, and that may be a conservative number.  Knowing the right things to do during a thunderstorm can help keep you and the members of your group safe and alive.

One of the most common questions people ponder is what are the odds of being hit by lightning.  Although some sources have tried to put a statistical number to it, like 1 in 3,000,000 it isn't that simple.  If you live in the Northwest Territory of Canada and rarely venture outdoors your odds of being hit by lightning are going to be lower than someone who lives in Georgia and hikes even if it's raining.  Your odds of being hit by lighting vary by the activity you engage in, when you engage in outdoor activity, and where you spend most of your time outdoors.

When you are outdoors, especially in the summer months you need to be vigilant for approaching thunderstorms.  This can pose some interesting and unique problems when mountaineering.  Below the tree line dense forest can make it difficult to see the sky and watch approaching clouds.  Above the tree line and at higher elevations thunder rolling through canyons and valleys can make it next to impossible to know what direction the storm is coming from, and in some case if it is even in your immediate area.  Finally, storm clouds can suddenly form or pass over the top of a ridge making things nasty in a matter of minutes.

Angry Sky - Copyright Broderbund, Divison of TLC, Divison of MattelWhen you start to hear thunder it is time to be alert.  Look for the signs of an impending thunderstorm.  High thin clouds streaking overhead, dark rising columns of "cotton balls" with shredded tops or dark bases with jagged torn bottoms.  Lighting can originate from six to eight miles away from it's last origin, so it is possible for a, "bolt from the blue," on the edge of a storm.  This is why if you wait until you see lightning, it may be already too late to take action.

If you are caught in a thunderstorm in the outdoors there are a number of things you can do to help protect yourself.

  • Get out of open and exposed areas.  Ridges, open fields, or nearby tall objects like solitary trees, communication antenna, or rock spires are a bad place to be.  Ridges and open fields leave you exposed and as the tallest object around, solitary trees and rock spires serve as natural lightning rods.

  • If you are climbing as a group spread out at least 20 feet apart.  Lighting can jump as far as 20 feet and if you stay close together a lightning strike can injury a group of people.

  • Find an area that is not exposed.  A sturdy building or vehicle is best (but likely won't be anywhere around you).  Find an area with trees of uniform height or an area with low brush and bushes.  Never seek shelter directly under a tree.  If you cannot find any shelter at all, say when you are above the tree line, get as low as possible as you can away from any ridges.

  • If you have metal gear like carabineers, picks, or crampons remove them and set your gear away from you.  Sit on top of your pack if you have one with your feet on the ground, crouched down with your eyes closed and your hands over your ears.  Sight and hearing injuries are very common among lightning strike victims and near strike injuries.  Do not lie prone on the ground, this is no longer recommended as a safe position.

  • Stay away from sharp changes in terrain.  Like the edge of water, the edge of a forest, rocks to dirt, etc - these areas are naturally more hazardous.

  • If your hair stands on end, you feel a tingling sensation, or if the area around you appears electrified lightning may be ready to strike.  Keep your ears covered and your eyes closed.  Hold your breath, some people have been seriously injured when they breathe in the superheated air that surrounds and is expanding out from a lightning bolt.

  • Wait for at least 30 minutes after the lighting and thunder has stopped to move on and resume activity.

  • If a member of your party gets hit by lightning start emergency treatment immediately.  A person is not electrified after being hit by lighting and a full 80% of people that are hit by lightning recover.  If a person has no pulse or heartbeat start performing CPR.  Treat electrical burns as you would any other.  Neurological and internal injuries are possible.  It is also possible for someone to be hit by lightning and be practically uninjured.

By following these simple steps you can greatly prevent your odds of being hit by lightning.  For the average person your chances of being hit by lightning are lower than you winning the lottery tonight.  If your travels take you to the outdoors, and the sky turns black, you should keep a careful eye to the sky, and an ear out for the distant thunder.  If you want to find out more, go to the next page and explore some popular lightning safety myths.