4 Facts About Lightning

by Paul Konrardy

4 Facts About Lightning

Here are four things to know about lightning from Weather.gov’s Lightning Safety Tips and Resources section.

Fact 1. Lightning can strike 5 different ways.

Direct Strike—When struck by lightning, a portion of the current moves along and just over the skin surface (called flashover) while another portion of the current moves through the body, usually through the cardiovascular and/or nervous systems. While the flashover can produce burns, the current moving through the body is of greater concern.

Side Flash or Side Splash—Side flash occurs when lightning strikes a taller object near the victim and a portion of the current jumps from taller object to the victim. These types of lightning strikes typically happen when the person has taken shelter under a tree to avoid rain or hail.

Ground Current— When lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike in and along the ground surface, or in garage floors with conductive materials. Anyone outside near a lightning strike is potentially a victim of ground current. The lightning enters the body at the contact point closest to the lightning strike, travels through the cardiovascular and/or nervous systems, and exits the body at the contact point farthest from the lightning. Because the ground current affects a much larger area than the other causes of lightning casualties, the ground current causes the most lightning deaths and injuries, including to large farm animals who have a relatively large body-span.

Conduction—Lightning can travel long distances in wires or other metal surfaces, and can pass to someone in contact with that metal surface.
This includes anything that plugs into an electrical outlet, water faucets and showers, corded phones, and windows and doors. Most indoor lightning casualties and some outdoor casualties are due to conduction.

Streamers—While not as common as the other types of lightning injuries, people caught in “streamers” are at risk of being killed or injured by lightning. Streamers develop as the downward-moving leader approaches the ground. Typically, only one of the streamers makes contact with the leader as it approaches the ground and provides the path for the bright return stroke; however, when the main channel discharges, so do all the other streamers in the area. A person part of one of these streamers can be injured or even killed.

Fact 2. If outdoor, take proper cover to avoid being struck.

Don’t crouch down, hide under a tree or lie flat on the ground since all these actions can make you more vulnerable to being struck by lightning. Better options are to take cover in a substantial building or a hard-topped vehicle. (NOTE: It’s the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, not the rubber tires. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground so don’t lean on car doors during a thunderstorm.)

Fact 3. There is no magic number or distance when it comes to lightning strikes.

Lightning can strike the same place more than once (the Empire State Building is hit an average of 23 times a year) and can occur more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. If you hear thunder, seek shelter immediately. Don’t wait for the lightning to appear.

Fact 4. While it’s safer than being outdoors, your home still has lightning risks.

Any items that conduct electricity—corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows—can conduct lightning. Windows are also a hazard during a thunderstorm, both from breakage from objects hurled by the wind and, in rare case, by lightning coming in the cracks in the sides of windows in older homes.

Check out Weather.gov’s Lightning Safety Tips on YouTube.


For More Information

Check out our posts on summer storms for more lightning tips.

Photo Credit: Pexels

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