Lightning can, in fact, strike twice. It frequently does. If you're the Empire State Building, such contact isn't a cause for concern. The same can't be said for humans, who are equipped with all kinds of delicate tissues and organs that can be easily damaged when zapped. So when thunder roars, most of us head indoors, just like the National Weather Service recommends.
But lightning can be unpredictable. Sometimes it strikes up to 10 miles away from any rain, leaving us far from home and unprepared [source: FEMA].
That's why you need to know where to be -- and where NOT to be -- when you see those first cauliflower clouds or hear the rumble of thunder on the way.
One of the worst places to take shelter during a thunderstorm is one of Mother Nature's own creations.
Near a Tree
When you're caught outside during a thunderstorm, it's tempting to hide under the first big thing you see. We feel safer when we're not exposed (and being pelted with rain). But taking shelter near a tall, isolated tree or a telephone pole is a terrible idea.
The lightning we see is created when charges in storm clouds work their way down to Earth in search of oppositely charged objects. The first attractive opportunity on the way down, or what looks like the easy path to ground, just might happen to be a tall tree full of sap and water. (The fluids make it a great conductor.)
If you're standing next to or underneath the tree, you're automatically voted second place in the lightning popularity contest. The lightning can strike the tree and jump to you (a side flash) or travel through the tree you're touching and into you (contact potential). Plus, you run the serious risk of getting hit by a falling object once a bolt has made contact.
Our next worst place is all fun and games -- that is, until the sky lights up.
On a Golf Course
There are very few reasons the United States Golf Association (USGA) allows golfers to discontinue play, such as in the case of a dispute or sudden illness, but lightning makes the list [source: USGA].
The beauty of a golf course is in its wide, open spaces, the green hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately for golfers, lightning is just as enthusiastic about a golf course's charms. An empty field except for a few people with raised metal clubs? Perfect for getting to ground.
Only 20 percent of lightning strike victims die immediately, which is pretty amazing when you consider that a lightning bolt can reach 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (29,982 degrees Celsius) and 1 billion volts [sources: Mullen; Webber]. Luckily for us, there's a process called external flashover that causes most of the current to pass over the skin instead of the full charge going directly through the body [source: Mullen].
Should you be on the links when you hear the first rumbles of thunder, head indoors or to your car ASAP. The shelters on golf courses are meant as protection from rain and sun, not lightning, and they aren't a safe place to wait out a storm.
On the next page, you'll find out where you don't want to go with the flow.
On a Small Boat
When you see dark towering cumulonimbus clouds topped with an anvil shape, get off the water -- and fast.
Not all boats are created equal. Sailboats are possibly the worst kind of vessel to be aboard in a thunderstorm -- there's a tall mast and no cabin. Metal ships can dissipate the electric charge of a lightning bolt fairly quickly. Wood and fiberglass boats need a lightning protection system (LPS). An LPS doesn't keep a strike from happening, but it can protect the people in the vessel, as well as the boat's instruments.
A lightning protection system for a boat has four parts, according to the National Sea Grant Library:
- Air terminal
- Water terminal
- Bonding system
Basically, you need a lightning rod, copper wiring that creates an easy path from air to water, an object that attracts the lightning to the water, and a system that connects all the metal parts on your boat. This makes it more likely that lightning will find your LPS more desirable than you.
Next: So close, and yet so far away.
In Your Yard
Being at your home is not the same as being in your home, as far as lightning safety goes. People are struck by lightning and killed each year in their own yards. Most are doing yard work, although some were simply taking out the trash or walking to the car to retrieve something they forgot.
Even in your home, you're not entirely safe. The Red Cross recommends staying out of the bath and shower and not using your land-line phone or any electrical appliances [source: Red Cross]. Electricity can travel through your phone, plumbing or any wires and shock you.
Even if you aren't killed by lightning, NASA's list of possible injuries is sobering, and includes:
To imagine the power of a lightning bolt, note that many people get knocked clean out of their shoes -- and sometimes their clothes.
Little is known about keuranopathy, the pathology of lightning in the body; the above list is simply a few of the symptoms medical personnel have noticed in lightning victims. Information we have about industrial electrical shocks simply doesn't compare. Stay out of your yard during storms, lest you provide us with more data.
On the next page, find out the No. 1 worst spot to be during a thunderstorm.
In an Open Field
Chopping cotton. Baling hay. Feeding livestock. Herding cattle. These are just some of the activities people were engaged in when struck by lightning and killed in 2011 [source: National Weather Service]. All of these fatalities occurred in open fields. Some people were doing farm work; others were engaging in leisure activities. Lightning deaths on soccer fields are, unfortunately, not uncommon in this category.
No matter how important a task may seem, most activities can wait until after a storm. There are dire circumstances in which this might not be the case, but a sports game or potatoes that need to be dug up are not those circumstances.
If you do get stranded outside during a storm with nowhere to go, the National Lightning Safety Institute recommends that you get away from hills and isolated trees and get into the lightning crouch:
- Put your feet together
- Tuck your head
- Cover your ears
If you're with other people, spread out -- it makes it less likely that all of you will be hit.
If lightning does strike one of you, don't believe the old myth that touching someone who's been struck will electrocute you. The human body doesn't store electricity [source: Webber]. If you're able, call 911 immediately. After that, try CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If multiple people are struck, the American Meteorological Society says that medical authorities recommend starting with the people who look dead, since they can often be resuscitated [source: National Weather Service].
Imagine the suicide booth on 'Futurama,' only real. Learn more about the Sarco suicide pod at HowStuffWorks.
- American Red Cross. "Preparedness Fast Facts: Thunderstorms." (Jan. 8, 2012) http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.53fabf6cc033f17a2b1ecfbf43181aa0/?vgnextoid=c842779a32ecb110VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD&currPage=554e6575fbd02210VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD
- Becker, William J. "Boating-Lightning Protection." Protection." University of Florida IFAS Extension. National Ag Safety Database. October 1992. (Jan. 11, 2012) http://nasdonline.org/document/209/d000007/boating-lightning-protection.html
- FEMA. "Thunderstorms & Lightning." (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.ready.gov/thunderstorms-lightning
- Mullen, Leslie. "Human Voltage: What Happens When People and Lightning Converge." NASA Science. June 18, 1999. (Jan. 10, 2012) http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/1999/essd18jun99_1/
- National Sea Grant Library. "Lightning and Boats." (Jan. 10, 2012) http://nsgl.gso.uri.edu/ncu/ncug95004.pdf
- National Severe Storms Laboratory. "Frequently Asked Questions About Lightning." (Jan. 11, 2012) http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/faq/faq_ltg.php
- National Severe Storms Laboratory. "Understanding Thunderstorm Risks." July 20, 2009. (Jan, 9, 2012) http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/primer/tstorm/tst_safety.html
- National Weather Service. "Lightning Statistics." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/statistics.htm
- National Weather Service. "Updated AMS Recommendations for Lightning Safety." 2002. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/ams_lightning_rec.htm
- Pliny (the Elder). "Pliny's Natural History. In thirty-seven books." Vol. 1-3. Trans. Phileman Holland. Google eBook. (Jan. 11, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=XrFgAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA94&lpg=PA94&dq=pliny,+lightning+sleeping&source=bl&ots=YvYp7ezAB3&sig=F7MvKTxu9gwbZWGfyxvQ5IKdkIM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wZQNT8DJE8PXtwe1q8TfBQ&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Roeder, William P. "Lightning: The Underrated Weather Hazard." National Lightning Safety Institute. (Jan. 11, 2012) http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_pls/hazardwarning.html
- USGA. "2012 Rules of Golf." Jan. 1, 2012. (Jan. 11, 2012). http://www.usga.org/Rule-Books/Rules-of-Golf/Rule-06/