Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lightning Safety

Jim Steenburgh of University of Utah and blogger for 

Wasatch Weather Weenies posted a timely discussion on the dangers of lightning.

Lightning Safety

Being that this is Lightning Awareness Week, and that we have a good chance of thunderstorms today, the time is ripe to do a post on lightning safety.

The national statistics of lightning fatalities are both sobering and revealing:
  • 261 deaths by lightning strikes from 2006–2013
  • A breakdown by activity includes 30 fishing, 16 camping, 14 boating, 14 ranching/farming, 13 beach, 12 soccer, 12 yardwork, and 8 golfing. 
  • Males accounted for 81% of the fatalities and more than 90% of the deaths in fishing and sports categories.
In Utah, there have been 65 lightning fatalities since 1950, more than any other thunderstorm-related hazard.  Others have survived, but have suffered debilitating injuries.  

In many ways, lightning safety is similar to avalanche safety.  Education and awareness help, but one ultimately needs to recognize the risk and take appropriate action.  Monitor the forecast and keep an eye on the sky.  If a storm is approaching or you can hear thunder, move to a completely enclosed building (picnic shelters are not good enough) or a hard-topped automobile.  If you are recreating, get off the water, get below timberline, find the lowest spot possible, etc.  One note of caution: the lowest spot possible could expose you to a flash flood, so do the best you can to minimize the risk.  

Peer pressure and other factors can be hard to overcome in many circumstances.  I've attended little league soccer and baseball games where there was a rumble or two of thunder and the inertia to keep the game going was very high.  In these instances, everyone should be moving to hard-topped vehicles until the threat has passed.  Ditto if you are at an outdoor concert or event (see Gratz and Noble 2006 for some sobering reading, although I suspect that the awareness of stadium and venue managers has improved some in recent years).  

Source: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
I know from personal experience that in practice lightning safety is often challenging.  Nobody likes to crawl out of their tent and move to their car at 2 am.  Further, many Utah storms only produce a few bolts of lightning, so adjusting plans for a rumble here or there is difficult.  In these instances, resist the temptation to push it (especially you males out there) and move indoors or into a hard-topped vehicle.

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