Lightning Strikes: Myth vs. Fact

Yahoo HealthJuly 28, 2014

Photo by Getty Images

News and images of several lightning strikes have been buzzing across the Web during the past couple of weeks. But despite the recent high-profile cases, lightning-related deaths are actually at an all-time low.

The latest incident happened Sunday in Venice Beach, California, when a bolt of lightning struck near the water, killing one person and injuring at least eight others. Last week, lightning struck and caused a fire that destroyed a Massachusetts home (no one was injured).

The recent rise in strikes is not random; we are at the peak of lightning season. “July is the month where [we] not only get the most lightning, but also more people are outside,” John Jensenius, meteorologist and lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service, told Yahoo Health. “Because of those two factors, it’s the month where we see the most fatalities.”

There have been eight lightning-related deaths in July, but the fatality rate, said Jensenius, has steadily declined during the past 30 years. Last year, there were only 23 deaths in the United States, which is an all-time low. “I think during the past 10 or 15 years, making people more aware of the dangers has definitely played a role in lowering the fatality rate,” said Jensenius.

"When thunder roars, head indoors" is an oft-repeated tip by Jensenius and his colleagues. "Anytime you’re outside, you’re at risk," he said. And leisure activities, such as fishing, swimming, or playing outdoor sports, account for 62 percent of lightning deaths annually. (Of all leisure activities, fishing tops the list.)  To keep the awareness train rolling, we asked Jensenius and the National Weather Service to help us debunk some of the most popular lightning myths.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Fact: This one has been around so long it’s been turned into a popular idiom. Too bad it’s simply not true. Lightning can strike multiple times in the same place, especially if that place is really tall and pointy. (Case in point: The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year.)

Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
Fact: The most important thing people should know is that if they hear thunder, they are within striking distance of lightning, according to Jensenius. And most people misjudge how far they are away from a storm. “You can hear thunder from a distance of about 10 miles, and lightning can strike outward from a storm as far as 10 miles,” he added. “If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance.”

Myth: Rubber tires on a car protect you by insulating you from the ground.
Fact: You are, in fact, protected in most cars, said Jensenius, but contrary to popular belief, it’s the hard metal surrounding that’s keeping you safe, not the rubber tires. Tires don’t protect you at all, so remember that when you are on a motorcycle, bicycle, ATV (such as a 4fourwheeler), or lawnmower during a storm. Convertibles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection either. If you’re riding in the car during a thunderstorm, don’t lean on the doors as they contain parts that can draw in electricity from outside the vehicle.

Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100 percent safe from lightning.
Fact: A substantial building offers the best protection, said Jensenius, but there are still a few things to remember. The No. 1 way to avoid getting struck by lightning is to get inside as quickly as possible. But if lightning strikes a house, chances are it’s going to find the wiring or plumbing and follow it to the ground, so you don’t want to be touching or near anything connected to them. You shouldn’t take a shower or be washing your hands or doing the dishes in a lightning storm either. And anything plugged into the wall can become electrified during a strike. Stay away from doors and windows too. Like car doors, they have metal parts that can attract electricity.

Myth: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, you should lie flat on the ground.
Fact: If you’re outside and unable to get indoors, there is nothing you can really do to be 100 percent safe, said Jensenius. So what can you do to lower your risk of being struck? Avoid open areas, and do not lie down. Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. “Lightning doesn’t strike the ground and disappear,” said Jensenius. “After it hits, it spreads out along the surface. If you are lying down, you are in more danger.”