February 16, 2005 | By: Ellen Brightwell

Although lightning is fascinating to watch, it also is a very dangerous phenomenon. The risk of being injured or killed when struck by lightning increases as spring approaches and through the summer.

Lightning, sometimes called "nature's fireworks," is caused by the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas. It usually takes place within a cloud, or between a cloud and the ground. About 25 million cloud-to-ground flashes take place each year.

Rapidly heated and cooled air near the lightning channel causes a shock wave that produces thunder.

"Lightning can come from a thunderstorm any time of the year; however, we tend to have more of these storms starting in the spring and on into summer because more active weather patterns are passing through Kentucky during these times," said Tom Priddy, meteorologist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "Although these storms often occur during the afternoon and evening, they can take place anytime of the day. An average lightning flash can light a 100-bulb for more than three months."

Annually it kills an average of 67 people in the United States, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Although an estimated 300 documented lightning injuries occur annually, the undocumented ones likely are much higher. Injured people often have long-term debilitating symptoms including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, joint stiffness, irritability, fatigue, weakness and
depression. Lightning also causes several hundred million dollars in property and forest damage each year.

"The greatest risk from a lightning strike is when you are outdoors, especially near tall trees, or water or on a hilltop," Priddy said. "One of the best ways to protect yourself is to be aware of an approaching thunderstorm and seek shelter inside a building, home or automobile before the storm arrives. Stay away from open doors and windows and do not stand in small structures or in open areas. This could put you in the pathway of the lightning because an electrical charge seeks the path of least resistance to the ground."

He said count the seconds between lightning and thunder and divide by five to gauge the distance between you and a thunderstorm. Because sound travels about a mile every five seconds, 30 seconds between lightning and thunder means lightning has flashed within six miles. This puts you within lightning striking distance, according to scientific research, and you should immediately seek shelter.

"Remember pet safety," Priddy said. "Dog houses usually do not protect against lightning strikes. Lightning will easily strike animals chained to a tree or wire runner." 

Priddy said several incorrect myths exist about lightning strikes and protection.

One is that there is no danger from lightning when it is not raining. Actually, lightning often strikes outside heavy rain and may occur up to 10 miles away from heavy rainfall. Another fallacy is that rubber shoe soles or rubber vehicle tires will protect someone from a lightning strike. Neither will provide protection. However the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle will protect someone who is not touching metal.
It is not true that someone struck by lightning carries an electrical charge and should not be touched. The victim has no electrical charge and should receive immediate attention. Contact the local chapter of the American Red Cross or American Heart Association for material on cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other first-aid information.

"Lightning is particularly dangerous to people outside in the spring and summer," he said. "Using common sense will greatly reduce the number of injuries and deaths. When thunderstorms threaten, go to a safe place, remain there longer than you think is necessary, stay away from windows and doors, and avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity."



Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736, ext. 257
Sources: Tom Priddy 859-257-3000, ext. 245