The Danger of Thunderstorms

by Tina Jaycox

Who doesn’t love a good thunderstorm? Dogs. Man’s best friend may not appreciate a thunderstorm, and some humans share in that sentiment. Their feelings are validated by the potential danger associated with thunderstorms. It’s something we don’t often think about, but the dangers exist. Before we dive into those dangers, let’s briefly revisit the basics of thunderstorm formation.

Two of the most important factors for thunderstorm formation are instability (unstable air) and moisture. Thunderstorms can occur year-round, but they are most likely to happen in the spring and summer months. According to the UCAR, most thunderstorms form with three stages: the cumulus stage when storm clouds form, the mature stage when the storm is fully formed, and then the dissipating stage when the storm weakens and breaks apart.  Thunderstorms result from the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air, sometimes along a front. As the warm, moist air moves upward, it cools, condenses, and forms a cumulonimbus cloud.  As the rising air reaches its dew point temperature, water vapor condenses into water droplets or ice, reducing pressure locally within the thunderstorm cell. Then, precipitation falls the long distance through the clouds towards the Earth’s surface. The falling droplets create a downdraft as it pulls cold air with it, and this cold air spreads out at the Earth’s surface, occasionally causing the strong winds that are commonly associated with thunderstorms. If you want to read more about that, head over to Wikipedia.

 

How dangerous is lightning?The Danger of Thunderstorms

The energy from one lightning flash could power a 100 watt lightbulb for 3 months.

Lightning strikes about 25 million times per year in the U.S.

An average of 49 people are killed and roughly 300 are injured each year by lightning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

 

When does the danger begin?

You’ve heard it before. “When thunder roars, go indoors.” If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. If you see the lightning first, know the “30/30” rule: When you see a lightning flash, start counting. If you don’t make it to 30 before hearing the thunder, head indoors.

Warning signs

A few seconds before being struck, your hair can stand on end, your skin might tingle, light metal objects may vibrate or buzz, you might get a metallic taste in your mouth, your palms may get sweaty, you might hear a crackling sound, it might smell like ozone (or a swimming pool), and at night there might be a blue glow from an object, according to NOAA.

Getting hit by lightning

The odds of getting directly hit by cloud to ground lightning are slim. But that’s the most deadly type of strike.

You’re more likely to catch a side flash — when lightning hits a tall object near you (like a tree) and the current jumps onto you — or a ground current, when lightning strikes a tree or other object and the energy travels out along the ground surface.

Ground currents affect a larger area than other strikes and therefore are responsible for more deaths. The lightning enters the body at the point closest to the lightning strike, travels through the cardiovascular or nervous system, and exits the body at the point farthest from the lightning strike.

When is it safe?

Don’t let blue skies fool you. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder to head back outside. More than 50 percent of lightning-related deaths happen after the storm has passed, according to the NOAA.

What if you can’t get indoors?

Do not lie on the ground. Crouch with your feet and knees together, your head tucked and your hands over your ears. Electrical currents from lightning can spread more than 100 feet across the ground from where it strikes. So, you want to minimize the amount of your body that’s touching the ground.

Stay away from water — rivers, lakes, the ocean, even puddles. Don’t go near tall trees. Find a cluster of small trees or bushes to hang by.

Avoid open fields or the tops of hills or ridges. Find a ditch or ravine.

If you’re in a group, separate to reduce the number of injuries so that someone can call for help.

Remove backpacks or other items you may be carrying that contain metal, which is a conductor of electricity.