WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

SWAW: Staying safe in a flash

Posted March 1, 2011 7:26 a.m. EST
Updated March 1, 2011 11:47 a.m. EST

Lightning strikes near downtown Raleigh

Lightning is one of the most popular topics I discuss when I give talks at local schools and businesses. Unfortunately, sometimes people are unaware of some life saving information about lightning.

Growing up as a kid, we were always told to get out of the pool or off the playing field when storms approached. That’s still the same for kids today, but the reason for heading indoors varies from individual to individual. I’ve heard coaches tell kids they don’t have to worry about the storm until they hear thunder. For this reason, I started asking people what they knew about thunder and lightning. Through this process, I found that most people aren’t aware that lightning causes thunder. This means that even if you hear thunder but don’t see lightning, you can bet on the fact that lightning is now close enough to strike you.

Lightning occurs when there is a discharge of electricity which is triggered by a buildup of differing electrical charges within a cloud. The flash of lightning heats the air, creating a loud shock wave that we hear as thunder.

Because staying safe is the most important thing I want you to take away from this blog, here are some easy ways to protect yourself.  If you are outdoors when a thunderstorm approaches, stop what you are doing and go inside. Buildings are the safest place, but you can also go to a car. If you are at home when the storm hits, stay away from windows and any item that is plugged into an electrical outlet or phone lines. It’s also best to stay out of the shower. Make sure your windows are shut and that you stand as far away from the outside as you can. Even if you are in your car, the windows must be closed.

Lightning frequently strikes tall objects, so taking shelter under trees is never a good idea. Believe it or not, I had a coach tell my child’s soccer team to do that one day! If you find that shelter is not available, then the best thing to do is crouch low to the ground and draw yourself into a ball if you can.

The electrical charge from lightning is strong enough to stop your heart. Your chance of surviving a lightning strike ranges from 5% to 30%, but the odds improve if someone nearby knows CPR. A person struck by lightning needs immediate medical attention.  The victim is completely safe to touch, even right after being struck.  They cannot shock you, either.

Now that we’ve covered how to stay safe, we can move on to some interesting facts about lightning.

  • Lightning is six times hotter than the surface of the sun.  Each bolt can be as hot as 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Lightning can strike the same object twice.  Because it is so tall, the Empire State Building in New York City has been hit numerous times.
  • A few unlucky people have been struck by lightning more than once in their lifetime - and still lived to talk about it! To date, no scientific theory can really explain why this happens. It just appears to be bad luck!
  • The most dangerous time to be struck during a storm is when it’s moving away from you. Don’t go back outside until at least thirty minutes after you’ve heard the last thunderclap.
  • Ball lightning is always a big topic for kids during my talks. Ball lightning occurs most often during very violent thunderstorms. It appears as a glowing sphere, typically the size of a basketball. It can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Ball lightning can disappear very quickly or even pass through glass, leaving a burn stain behind. It doesn't happen often and that’s what makes it so interesting.
  • Heat lightning does exist, but it is just regular lightning happening in a storm that is so far away from you, it is below the horizon.  It is called "heat lightning" because the thunderstorms that produce it are most likely to happen during the warmer times of the year.
  • By the time you see lightning, it has already struck an object and is on its way back up into the sky.

I hope you enjoyed the lightning blog and gained a better understanding of what lightning is capable of doing. Keeping my family safe during storms is very important to me. The next time a storm approaches you, I hope these safety tips will help keep your family safe too.