When Thunder Roars!


The sultry days of summer have faded, but the season of powerful electrical storms is not over in Oakland County, or for the rest of our Great Lake State. Nature’s way does not always follow the calendar and in the last few weeks I’ve witnessed boaters on our local lakes pursuing their passion as thunder was clearly audible, picnickers waiting out a storm under an open picnic shelter instead of retreating to their cars (a much safer option), and most worrisome, kids playing sports in fields to the accompaniment of not so distant thunder.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) writes, “Lightning is one of the most underrated severe weather hazards, yet ranks as one of the top weather killers in the United States. Lightning strikes in America kill about 50 people and injure hundreds of others each year.” And it is that simple fact that accelerates the importance of following the message of the National Weather Service, “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”

I’ve had two close encounters with lightning, one was about three decades ago when I foolishly paddled over to Apple Island in the middle of Orchard Lake just as a late summer storm brewed, a fact that was obvious by the darkening sky and the distant rumble of thunder. I hunkered down in a small open island pavilion (a dangerous location) as lightning sliced the sky to the roar of near constant thunder.

I’m a bit wiser now and am amazed in my backcountry outdoor adventure travels when I see hikers, hunters, trail runners and other adventurers that tote hand guns, bear spray, emergency signal beacons and all sorts of high tech gadgets to stay safe “in the wilds,” but think absolutely nothing about crossing over a rocky ridge line or wide open meadow during a thunderstorm. Locally, I have seen folks launching kayakers on our rivers and lakes while severe thunderstorm warnings are posted and cyclists casually peddling the Paint Creek Trail as if they are invulnerable to what Mother Nature is about to deliver. And then there are friends that repeat common myths about lightning’s behavior, as if repeating them make them true.

Most of my Wilder Side of Oakland County blog posts could be deemed “fun” and share facts and tips about our trails, parks, flora and fauna. However, because of my paramedic background and wilderness medic interests and skills, today I will share a bit about lightning behavior and hopefully sink some common myths as unstable weather patterns continue.

Myth: The storm is already passed, the thunder is “fading.”

Fact: “Bolts from the blue” have been documented 15 miles from a thunderstorm. If you are outside and thunder can be heard, you are not safe. NOAA advises to stay inside or in the safest place you can for at least 30 minutes after the last clearly audible thunderclap. And that brings me to my second close call encounter. That one occurred about ten years ago while cycling with a friend on the Buffalo to Rochester section of the Erie Canalway Trail, a cycling destination following one of the world’s most famous man-made waterways that spans New York State between Albany and Buffalo. We were about 35 miles into our journey and could clearly hear thunder increasing in intensity, but the sky was blue so we peddled on. A sudden deafening thunderclap startled us. We turned and saw where a “bolt from the blue” shattered the side of a trailside tree less than one fourth of a mile behind us and scattered bark across the trail.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Fact: There is not a hint of truth to this old saying. NOAA states that the Empire State Building gets hit an average of 23 times a year. And many homes and commercial buildings have lightning rods, including my hilltop home. So do many office buildings and houses of worship. Here’s one of my favorite situational awareness photos I took of the roof of a cathedral in Santa Fe with a statue of the Virgin Mary topped with a lightning rod. I’ve shared the image with backpacking friends who tell me they just pray to be safe during storms.

Myth: The rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning.

FACT: No they don’t. It’s the metal roof and metal sides that protect you if a bolt hits the car. Obviously if you are in a convertible, or on a motorcycle, ATV, or bicycle, you have no protection from lightning. The National Institute of Lightning Safety has some eye-opening science-based comments on cars and lightning:

“Electrically speaking, at lightning’s higher frequencies, currents are carried mostly on the outside of conducting objects. A thick copper wire or a hollow-wall metal pipe will carry most of the lightning on outer surfaces. This phenomenon is called ‘skin effect.’ The same holds true for lightning when it strikes metal vehicles: the outer surface carries most of the electricity. But, consistent with lightning’s capricious nature, situations alter results. Is the car dry or wet? If the car is made of fiberglass (a poor conductor) or a convertible, skin effect principles may not work. (Corvette and Saturn owners, please note this fact.)”

Myth: Never touch someone hit by lightning, they are electrified and you will be electrocuted.

When I hear that myth, I am stunned that anyone believes it. The human body does not store electricity and is 100% safe to touch someone hit by lightning. And contrary to what some believe, most victims do not die from burns or fractured bones that may occur from a lightning strike. Cardiac arrest from the lightning strike is almost always the cause of death for those that die at the scene. Immediate first aid in the form of CPR is needed, and often successful.

Forget Myths – Follow Science

Lightning is not to be ignored and thunder is your warning. The Wilderness Medical Society states that there are approximately 25 million cloud to ground flashes per year in the United States. The National Weather Service lists the four most common ways lightning strikes people, abbreviated here for clarity and space.

Direct Strike: This is the least common, yet potentially the most deadly way to be struck. Although fractures and burns are likely to occur, it’s the current moving through the body that causes the greatest damage.
Side Splash: This occurs when lightning strikes a taller object (such as the tree someone sheltered under) and then “jumps” over to the victim.
Ground Current: Anyone outside near a lightning strike is potentially a victim of a ground current strike because the current travels outward from the strike area. It causes the most lightning deaths and injuries among humans, livestock and wildlife. The internet has multiple photos of herds of elk, deer and cows killed by ground current strikes. Ground strikes have also caused multiple injuries and fatalities at sporting events.
Conduction: Most indoor casualties (a rare event) and some outdoor casualties are due to conduction. Lightning hits something such as metal fencing or plumbing in which the victim is in contact with.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the best defense and can significantly reduce your odds of being a statistic. Open pavilions, rains shelters and tents provide no safety from lightning as it travels through the ground. And contrary to what many may think, standing near or under an overhang of any kind, including a porch, or open sided picnic shelter is very dangerous because lightning travels along vertical surfaces and if it finds a short cut to the ground it will take it. If you are standing under an overhang of some sort to stay out of the rain, and lightning hits it, you become the electrified shortcut. If you can’t get to safety and are in a group, huddling or standing close together is the worst thing you can do because a close by ground strike will get everyone and there will be no one left standing to start CPR or get help. Want to know more? Explore the website of the National Weather Service or other reputable science-based sites and enjoy the changing season of Oakland County or wherever your travels take you and carry one reminder with you: When Thunder Roars – Go Indoors! Here are two links to get you started:
Lightning Safety Tips and Resources
NOAA Knows…Lightning

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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