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Lightning Safety

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Appendix F: Glossary


Early recognition of lightning when it is approaching is the best defense. It is very important to be able to monitor how far away the lightning is. All outdoor activities such as swimming, camping, hiking, should be stopped and safety should be sought when the lightning is within 6 miles. Wait a minimum of 30 minutes for this storm to pass.

What do you do when lightning is near?

Lightning can never be prevented, but you can reduce your chances of being struck by:

  • Avoiding high ground, water, solitary trees, open spaces, metallic objects. Search for low ground, ditches, trenches. If they contain water or if the ground is saturated, then find clumps of shrubbery or trees, all of uniform height.
  • Remove all metal objects, bracelets, watches, rings, if possible. It is best to crouch down on the balls of your feet with your hands over your ears. There should be at least 20 feet between you and other people. Do not all huddle together.
  • If you are in a fully enclosed metal automobile, seek refuge with all the windows rolled up and your hands in your lap.
  • Avoid all metal shelters and sun shelters. If golfing, put down the clubs and get off the golf course.
  • Stop all bicycles and motorcycles and get away from them.

How to handle lightning victims:

  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible. If necessary, begin CPR. Make sure before doing CPR that the person absolutely is not breathing or there is no heart rate before starting resuscitation. Victims DO NOT retain an electrical charge. They are safe to handle. Check for burns along the extremities and around areas. Treat the burns the same as other types of burns. Please see Burn Section in Survive outdoors.
    Very common after effects:
    • Short, but not long term impaired eyesight
    • Loss of hearing

What is lightning?

Lightning is a form of electrical discharge between clouds or between clouds and the ground. The discharge may take place between two parts of the same cloud, between two clouds or between a cloud and the ground. Thunder is the sound waves produced by the explosive heating of the air and the lightning channel during the return.

Some specifics:

  • Most lightning strikes occur either at the beginning or the end of a storm.
  • Average lightning strike is 6 miles long.
  • Lightning reaches 50,000 degrees farenheit, 4 times as hot as the sun's surface.
  • A cloud to ground lightning channel can be 2-10 miles long.
  • Voltage in a cloud to ground strike is 100 million to one billion volts.

Other facts:

  • Lightning is the most dangerous and frequently encountered weather hazard people experience each year.
  • Lightning affects all regions. Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Colorado have the most lightning deaths and injuries every year.
  • Lightning is the #1 cause of storm-related deaths.
  • Damage costs from lightning are estimated at 4-5 billion each year in the U.S.
  • Around the earth, there are 100 lightning strikes per second or 8 million, 6 hundred and 40 thousand times per day. What is commonly referred to as heat lightning is actually lightning too far away to be heard. However the storm may be moving in your direction.
  • There are approximately 100 thousand storms in the US each year.

Lightning strike statistics

  • Americans are twice as likely to die from a lightning-related death than from a tornado, hurricane or flood.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates there are 200 deaths and 750 severe injuries from lightning each year in the US.
  • 20% of all lightning victims die from the strike.
  • 70% of survivers will suffer serious long-term affects.
  • Annually there are more than 10,000 forest fires caused by lightning.

Who's at risk?

  • 85% of lightning victims are children and young men age 10-35 engaged in outdoor recreation and work activities outside.
  • 70% of all lightning injuries and fatalities occur in the afternoon.
  • Most lightning deaths involve people working outdoors and engaged in outdoor recreation.
  • Lightning in remote terrain creates dangerous conditions. Hikers, campers, backpackers, skiiers, fishermen, and hunters are especially vulnerable when they participate in these activities.
  • Many survivers of lightning strikes report that immediately before being struck, their hair was standing on end and they had a metallic taste in their mouth.
  • Long-term injuries from lightning strike can include memory and attention loss, chronic numbness, muscle spasm, stiffness, depression, hearing loss and sleep disturbance.

Treatment of Lightning Injuries

Lightning injuries are most common in areas of frequent thunderstorm activity. For example, Florida has 70-90 thunderstorm days per year throughout the state, Northeast and Mexico 70 thunderstorm days per year, and Southern Arizona 60 thunderstorm days per year. There really is no accurate reporting method of thunderstorm deaths/lightning injuries in the U.S. However lightning strike deaths are estimated at between 50 and 300 per year in the U.S. A Colorado study from 1950-1991 reported that 89% of fatalities were single fatality mishaps, 10% were 2 fatalities per lightning strike, and 1% were 3 or more fatalities per incident. This probably reflects the availability of bystanders to provide emergency care at that time.

A lightning bolt is only 6-8 cm in diameter, carrying between 10 and 100 million volts in 20 to 50 thousand amps of direct current. The duration is approximately one millisecond. Volts of 2 billion and 500 thousand amps have been measured in the past.

Lightning bolts can strike up to 10 kilometers in front or behind a thunderstorm cell.

A "bolt from the blue sky" is a real entity and is responsible for many strikes on people per year. Thunder travels at the speed of sound. A lightning flash travels at the speed of light. Speed of light is approximately 186,000 miles per second.

Types of Lightning

  • Streak lightning which is the most common.
  • Ribbon, usually seen in cloud-to-cloud lightning.
  • Bead lightning - Persistent lightning that is actually an optical afterimage.
  • Ball lightning - Very rare, where there is a cluster or ball of lightning. This is rarely seen.

Lightning does not usually enter the body, but flashes over the exterior. Some charges may leak into the body via the eyes, ears or mouth.

Burns are usually superficial, and usually caused by the heating up of objects close to the skin, belt buckles, bracelets, rings. It is not uncommon to not have severe burns.

Clothing can be blasted from the body.


Minor injuries associated with lightning strikes:

  • Confusion.
  • Temporary blindness.
  • Temporary deafness.
  • Amnesia.
  • Numbness in the extremities.
  • Rupture of the eardrum.
  • These victims usually recover with no serious problems.

Moderate injuries associated with lightning strikes:

  • Combative.
  • Disorientation.
  • Possibly some paralysis.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Coma.
  • Victims usually recover; however they have some significant side-effects afterwards.

Severe injuries associated with lightning strikes:

  • Cardiopulmonary arrest.
  • Direct brain damage.
  • Blunt trauma to the brain.
  • Blunt trauma to internal organs.

Prognosis is poor.

  • Cardiopulmonary arrest can be a primary event and CPR needs to be started within a few seconds. However with animal studies, it has been shown that respiratory paralysis lasts longer, leading to secondary hypoxic cardiac arrest, which means the heart stops due to not enough oxygen to the body.
  • Neurological injuries: These can vary. There are invariably fatal. Blood pressure instability is very common and can last for several days.
  • Burns: Usually superficial; however deep burns are an indication of electrical passage through the body and carry a very poor prognosis. Burns also occur around metal objects that are on the body and feathering burns are not really burns at all. They are due to the intense shower of electrons across the skin from the lightning strike.

Other injuries that can occur after a lightning strike include:

  • Cataracts which can develop very rapidly, within days to weeks, or show up years later.
  • Eardrum rupture is also very common.

Treatment of the lightning strike victim:

  1. Lightning does strike twice in the same place. So remove the victim as soon as possible.
  2. CPR should be started immediately if the criteria are met.
  3. Transport the victim as soon as possible to an emergency department.
  4. If multiple victims are down, reverse triage is important. People that are able to talk, move or otherwise show significant signs of life will likely survive. Do not approach those victims first. Victims that are down that are in obvious need of CPR should be tended to first. Patients obviously in cardiac arrest get transported first. Please do use appropriate spinal precautions.

Some basics about how NOT to get hit by lightning:

  1. Don't be the tallest object in the area.
  2. Stay off ridgelines and mountaintops.
  3. Don't be next to the tallest object in the area.
  4. Remember that a storm approximately 10 miles away can reach out and touch you.
  5. If you are in the mountains, shelter in a grove of trees staying low, or in a region of rolling hills and staying low are also an options.
  6. If in a group, please spread out so that a single strike will not affect all of you.
  7. Shelter in a metal vehicle is relatively safe.
  8. On a golf course, you clearly more safe in a cart than under a tree.
  9. Bolts can be conducted through tree roots, telephone lines, water pipes, electrical wires, cable TV lines, computers, steel reinforcement rods and concrete.
  10. Stay out of the bathtub.
  11. Stay out of the shower.
  12. If caught out in a completely open area, laying flat is not a good idea. Crouching down with feet together is as good a posture as any, as well as hands over your ears. However this is a very hard position to sustain.
  13. Stay off all bodies of water in thunderstorm conditions.

To increase your safety and as a precautionary measure, it has been shown that the lightning strike detector Survive Outdoors has to offer on this web site can decrease the likelihood of being struck by lightning. The lightning strike detector alerts you to lightning that is within close proximity, which allows you the necessary time to seek shelter before you are in harm's way.

Survive Outdoors would like to acknowledge a portion of the above information. We therefore cite at this time Robert C. Allen, D.O., F.A.C.E.P., Colonel, United States Air Force, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.

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