Severe Weather Awareness Week: Lightning

Weather Knowledge

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – March 1-7, 2020 has been declared Severe Weather Awareness Week by the National Weather Service (NWS) and Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM). Today’s topic of discussion is lightning.

Lightning is an electric current produced by a thunderstorm. Inside a storm, water is being super-cooled and an updraft will cause these super-cooled water droplets to rise even higher in the cloud. Eventually the droplets freeze and create small pieces of ice. Each little piece of ice has an electric charge. The positive charges collect at the top of the cloud, while the negative charges disperse to the bottom of the cloud. Because opposites attract, the positively charged particles on the ground are what leads to the connection of a negative charge from the cloud to ground – thus giving way to a burst of bright light as the charges connect.

Because lightning is an extremely powerful and hot electrical current that is unpredictable in its path, it is a hazard in all thunderstorms – severe or not.

According to data from the NWS over the past 30 years, lightning was the third most deadly thunderstorm hazard behind flash floods and tornadoes. On average, about 50 people die per year across the country from lightning related injuries. In fact, 80% of lightning victims are male.

Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a thunderstorm. Majority of lightning deaths have occurred when a storm was approaching or leaving an area, not when it was directly overhead. Most injuries and deaths occur in the summer when people are more likely to be outdoors.

Arkansas is ranked in the Top 10 states for lightning activity in the last 10 years. The Natural State sees over 850,000 cloud to ground lightning strikes per year.

Lightning Safety Guidelines:

If a person is struck by lightning, that person’s body will not be able to retain any electrical charge. Immediate care is advised.

Remember: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to a storm to be struck by lightning.

Where to go and what to do when thunder roars or if lightning is spotted?

  • Take shelter in a full enclosed building that is grounded and avoid windows
  • Sit in a hard top car for safety, not touching any metal
  • Avoid open spaces and weak structures like sheds, pavilions, tents
  • Keep away from elevated locations like hilltops and towers
  • Move away from anything and everything metal like fences, power poles, etc.
  • Motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and tractors are not safe
  • Get out of the pool and stay away from water – do not shower or take baths as lightning can strike pipes and the electrical current can be transferred a distance due to metal piping acting as a conductor of electricity
  • Leave wide open spaces like golf courses and never take shelter under a tree
  • Follow official protocol when attending an event

Common Lightning Myths:

  • Lightning always strikes the tallest object. FALSE.
    Lightning is a result of transfer of charges. The charge from the cloud will look for the shortest path to the ground or the strongest charge on the ground.
  • Lightning never strikes the same place twice. FALSE.
    As long as the thing that was struck by lightning remains the path of least resistance or strongest charge, lightning will strike.

Fun Facts:

  • Lightning is HOT!!! It’s estimated to be about 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • There is enough energy in a lightning bolt to power a single light bulb for six months!
  • On average, the world observes 1.5 BILLION lightning flashes each year.
  • The time between when you see lightning and hear thunder can help you calculate the distance a storm is from you. For every 5 seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder, storm is 1 mile away.
  • If you see lightning but don’t hear thunder…the storm is too far away. This is called “heat lightning,” though the name is misleading, because the lightning doesn’t just form from hot conditions.

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