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Lightning is definitely scary

June 2019

Lightning
Image by CanStock

A couple of weeks ago a woman died after being struck by lightning after hill walking in Scotland. It brings home all those warnings we had as children not to shelter under high trees during a thunderstorm.

This was a good warning but in fact it wasn’t enough. Today statistics (from TORRO’s UK database) show that on average while 49 people are struck by lightning each year, half of these strikes affect people who are actually inside a building. One quarter of indoor incidents involve a telephone which indicates that it is much more dangerous being on a landline phone indoors than standing under a tree. Cell phones are okay though because they have no physical connection.

Many of the people struck by lightning receive only superficial burns and shock; but more severe burns and deaths do occur. On average just under two people a year are killed by lightning strikes in the UK.

Of course this means the likelihood of most of us being struck by lightning is comfortingly low; but nevertheless being in a severe thunderstorm can be scary because of the sheer power released. Lightening is an electrical current created when small pieces of ice collide as they move around in a high cloud. The collisions begin to build up an electrical charge, and eventually the whole cloud is filled up with electrical charges, with the lighter, positively charged particles at the top and the heavier, negatively charged particles at the bottom. When these groups of charged particles are large enough, a giant spark a bit like a static electrical spark occurs between the two charges and this is lightning. Sometimes this electrostatic discharge can occur between two different clouds, or even between the cloud and the ground. It is all quite a complex system but for non-scientists good explanations about it all can be found at scijinks.gov/lightning/ or phys.org/lightning.

Once it has been created, the speed and the heat of lightning is frightening. A flash can heat the air around it to a temperature of around 53,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. That is hot! The energy of a lightning strike is also extraordinary...it can contain up to one billion volts of electricity.

It all happens so fast and it is this instant flash of extreme heat that also causes thunder. The heat causes the surrounding air to rapidly expand and vibrate, creating the peal of thunder that can echo around the surroundings.

But the main thing for us is that lightning is dangerous, and during a thunderstorm anything that sticks up from the ground such as mountains, a high fishing rod, a person standing up in an empty field, or a single isolated tree, could be the first point to connect with the electrical charge coming down from the sky. Lightning can jump around to find a nearby route with the least resistance. This is how lightning conductors work, by offering a low resistance path to attract the lightning to travel through them instead of an adjacent building.

The power from a lightning strike in the region of a home is often diverted by plumbing, gutters or other materials into the ground where it can dissipate without doing harm. But this can mean that the power can travel through electrical systems and of course the telephone lines.

There are a few things you can do to help protect yourself during at thunderstorm:

  • Seek shelter. Inside a car is fine, the lightning will spread over the metal of the car before earthing to the ground through the tyres.
  • In your home, avoid using the landline telephone as the lines can conduct electricity. Be aware that taps and sinks with metal pipes can also sometimes conduct electricity.  Unplugging appliances such as the television can be useful as lightning can cause power surges that can damage the equipment.
  • If outside, keep a safe distance from lone trees, poles or metal objects such as isolated golf clubs, umbrellas, motorbikes and bikes, or even wire fencing.
  • Water can conduct electricity, so a nearby lightning strike could reach you. You shouldn’t be swimming underneath a thunderstorm.

The walking organisation Ramblers has a lot of good information for self protection on its website.

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