Lightning Safety Tips

June 24-30, 2013 is Lightning Safety Awareness Week. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about lightning.

What causes lightning and thunder?

Lightning is a bright flash caused by the discharge of electricity during a thunderstorm. It happens when imbalances in positive and negative charges occur between the earth and atmosphere. While it’s not always the case, the air inside a thunderstorm usually carries a negative charge, while the earth carries a positive one. The lightning strike makes a connection between the two, and therefore briefly neutralizes these charges. As the electricity travels through the sky, it heats the air around it to 50,000 degrees, causing the air to explode and expand into a shockwave. Thunder is the sound made by the shockwave. Light travels faster than sound, which is why there is always a delay between lightning and thunder.  The shorter the delay, the closer you are to the thunderstorm, and the greater the danger.

When should you take shelter from a thunderstorm?

To be as safe as possible, you should start moving indoors anytime you see lightning or the skies become threatening. At the very least, you should take shelter as soon as you hear thunder. Once you can hear thunder, the storm is usually 10-15 miles away, which is close enough to be struck by lightning. Once you take shelter, wait 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder until you go back outside, to make sure the storm has completely moved away.

Where is the safest place to be during a thunderstorm?

The safest place during a thunderstorm is inside a sturdy building or house, with running water and electricity, away from any windows or doors. In the event of a direct lightning strike, the plumbing and electrical wires help ground the electrical surge, preventing any of the electricity from reaching the people inside. This is why you should avoid using electrical appliances or running water during a thunderstorm. You may also want to unplug any valuable appliances like your TV and computer to protect them from a power surge.

If the forecast calls for thunderstorms, but I have outdoor plans, what should I do?

On days when the forecast calls for the possibility of thunderstorms, it is best to stay alert while doing outdoor activities. Plan ahead on where you’ll take shelter in the event of thunderstorm. Keep an eye on the sky for lightning or darkening clouds. You can also get weather alerts and watch the radar on your smart phone through the WBAL TV mobile app.

What happens if I’m caught outside during a thunderstorm?

Being outdoors during a thunderstorm puts you in great danger of being struck by lightning. That’s why you should start taking shelter as soon as you see lightning, and especially by the time you hear thunder. Keep in mind, that if you’re out on a lake or in a field, it can take a while to get to a safe place. The safest place to shelter is inside a sturdy building with electricity and plumbing. At a park, the only option may be the bathroom facility. If there isn’t a shelter nearby, you can take shelter in your vehicle. It’s a myth that the rubber tires will help ground your vehicle. It’s actually the metal roof overhead that offers some protection in the event of a lightning strike. While sheltering in your car, avoid leaning on the metal steering wheel or car doors.

What if I’m outside during a thunderstorm and I’m not close to any shelter?

This is a situation you want to prevent getting yourself into in the first place. However, if you find yourself out in the open during a thunderstorm, quickly start making your way to a sturdy shelter. Avoid taking shelter under open porches or pavilions, as they offer no protection from a lightning strike. And never take shelter under a tree. Lightning tends to hit the tallest objects. And when a tree is hit, the energy travels through the truck, and through the ground around it. Also, a lightning strike is so hot it can cause branches to break or cause the entire trunk to explode.

If you’re in route to shelter, and you start to feel the static electricity build up around you and your hair starts to stand on end, you are extremely close to getting struck by lightning. At this point, the safest thing to do is crouch down, grab your knees and balance on the tip of your toes. Essentially, you’re trying to make yourself as small as possible, while trying to touch as little of the ground as possible. This is obviously a last resort option, should avoid ever having to resort to this.

How many people are injured or killed by lightning?

The most recent lightning injury in Maryland occurred on June 13, when a young female was struck by lightning at the Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun. She was reportedly standing near a large tree at the time, and is still recovering from serious injuries. Every year, dozens of people are killed by lightning nationwide, with hundreds more subject to lifelong injuries.

If I see someone get struck by lightning, what should I do?

Call 911 immediately. Most victims can survive lightning strikes if they receive immediate medical attention. In many cases, their heart or breathing may have stopped, in which case, CPR may be needed. Do not hesitate to approach and help the victim; they will no longer be carrying an electrical charge.

If you have any more questions about lightning or weather safety, you can contact the WBAL TV meteorologists at http://www.wbaltv.com/tv/about

By Meteorologist Ava Marie

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