What You Need to Know About Lightning Safety This Thunderstorm Season

The National Weather Service has declared this week as Lightning Safety Awareness Week

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Summertime brings us hot temperatures and beach weather here in New England.  It also brings in those classic summertime thunderstorms. 

Cloud to ground lightning is a sneaky threat from a thunderstorm. The storm does not have to be "severe" to produce flooding rain, or deadly cloud to ground lightning.  To bring more awareness to the threat, the National Weather Service has declared this week as Lightning Safety Awareness Week.  Lightning can occur in any state in the U.S., at any time of the year. It kills about 20 people each year and injures hundreds more.

The formation of lighting

Lightning and thunder go hand-in-hand.  When you hear thunder that means lightning has already occurred.  It can be in the form of cloud to air, cloud to cloud, or cloud to ground.

Lighting begins as an electric charge in a cloud.  Updrafts in the clouds move the raindrops and ice crystals around to cause charges.  The bottom of a storm cloud is negatively charged, while the ground or objects on the ground, are positively charged. Lightning takes the path of least resistance to meet the negative and positive charges. The negative charge in the bottom of the cloud attracts the positive charges on the ground and a "leader" charge descends, while a “streamer” charge moves up from the positive charge.  As these two paths connect, we get the bolt. As the strike occurs, it heats up the air about five times faster than the surface of the sun. In less than a second, the extremely heated air expands and contracts and… boom! You hear the thunder. 

Lightning safety

"When thunder roars, go indoors." This is the motto from the National Weather Service that gives us advice on exactly what to do if there is a threat of lightning or you hear thunder.  Go indoors.  This is the safest place to be since even if your building is hit by lightning, you are safe as long as you aren’t touching water from plumbing, electrical, or talking on a corded phone line.

Dugouts, park gazebos, or garages are not safe since they do not have plumbing or metal to curb the electrical charge.  And yes, you can get zapped on a corded phone, or as you take a shower during a lightning storm.  The next best place to go if you are outside and you can’t get into a building is in your vehicle.  Again, you’re safe as long as you don’t touch the metal, as the lightning takes the metal path to get to the positive ground charge.  Never take shelter under a tree, never be the tallest object outside, get away from standing water, and get out of the lake/ocean/river during water activities. Again, a building is the safest place to be during a thunderstorm.  Stay sheltered for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.

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