Why everything you think you know about lightning could be wrong

  • Lightning can strike when it's not raining and can hit as far away as 25 miles from the core of a storm.

      Lightning can strike when it's not raining and can hit as far away as 25 miles from the core of a storm. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer, April 2014

  • Golfing might seem like the most dangerous thing to do outside during a lightning storm, but it's actually fishing. Camping, mowing the lawn and playing soccer are more risky than golfing, too, according to the National Lightning Safety Council.

      Golfing might seem like the most dangerous thing to do outside during a lightning storm, but it's actually fishing. Camping, mowing the lawn and playing soccer are more risky than golfing, too, according to the National Lightning Safety Council. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer August 2016

  • Cars don't protect you from lightning because of their rubber tires. It's really because of the metal exterior shells that direct electricity into the ground.

      Cars don't protect you from lightning because of their rubber tires. It's really because of the metal exterior shells that direct electricity into the ground. John Starks | Staff Photographer, August 2015

 
 
Updated 7/8/2019 6:55 AM

All of our recent thunderstorms may make you feel like a severe weather expert, but do you really know what's safe and what's not when it comes to lightning strikes?

Jeff Peters does. His title is lightning expert, as well as meteorologist, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Daily Herald recently chatted with Peters to learn the myths and truths about lightning.

But first, a quick science lesson:

When updrafts form along cold or warm fronts, hail particles and ice crystals become electrically charged and separate, with ice crystals high in the cloud taking a positive charge and hail particles closer to the ground taking a negative charge.

When enough energy builds up, the charges overcome the insulating properties of air and form a spark. That spark has to go somewhere, so it heads to the ground, typically taking the shortest route it can through the tallest object it can find.

Voila! Lightning.

But as with many common phenomena, a lot of myths surround lightning. Here's a look at some of them and what you really need to know.

Myth: Golfing is the most dangerous thing you can do outside during a lightning storm.

Not so, according to 13 years of National Lightning Safety Council data. Fishing, by far, is the riskiest because it requires being on or near water, which conducts electricity.

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Between 2006 and 2018, 38 people died nationwide from lightning strikes while fishing, compared with 23 while at the beach, 19 while camping, 19 while farming or ranching, 18 while mowing the lawn, 17 while boating, 12 while playing soccer and 10 while golfing.

Myth: If it's not raining, you can't be struck.

Lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from the core of a thunderstorm, so it's safest to follow the rhyming advice: "When thunder roars, go indoors." Lightning originating from the top of the cloud is most likely to strike farther away.

Myth: Injuries only result from direct lightning strikes.

Nope, indirect strikes -- such as those transmitted through electric wires, phone lines or plumbing -- can hurt you, too, causing what's known as a "conductive injury."

Myth: If you're outside during a thunderstorm, it's safest to lie down.

Wrong again. Lightning can travel through the ground -- in currents that sometimes create dramatic patterns of burned grass -- so lying down just makes you a bigger target.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If lightning were to hit nearby, there's that much more of you on the ground to be exposed," Peters said.

The top safety tip is to take shelter as quickly as possible in a sturdy building with wiring and plumbing.

Myth: You're safe in a car because rubber tires ground you.

Vehicles are the second-safest spot during lightning storms, but not for the reason many people think.

"It's not the rubber that protects them," Peters said. "It's the metal around the outside of the shell of the car."

The metal shell directs the electricity to exit through the ground, protecting people inside. So cars, trucks, buses and vans are good places of refuge from lightning.

But without a shell, open-air vehicles such as motorcycles and bikes aren't.

Myth: It's OK to be on the phone.

Depends on the type. Cellphone? Yup. Mobile signals can't transmit electricity. Landline? Nope. Lightning strikes can travel through phone wiring. Cordless landline? Yup, but only if you're away from the base unit, which is risky because it's wired.

Myth: It's OK to bathe, shower or do the dishes.

No, no and no. Conductive injuries can occur in all of these cases because lightning can travel through plumbing and injure anyone in contact with water, even indoors.

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