Things to Know About Lightning

What is lightning?

The action of rising and descending air within a thunderstorm separates positive and negative charges. Water and ice particles also affect the distribution of electrical charge.

Lightning results from the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas. Most lightning occurs within the cloud or between the cloud and ground.

The average flash of lightning could turn on a 100-watt light bulb for more than 3 months. The air near a lightning strike is hotter than the surface of the sun! The rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning channel causes a shock wave that results in thunder.

Your chances of being struck by lightning are estimated to be 1 in 600,000 but those chances can be reduced by following safety rules. Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors, and most happen in the summer.

Many fires in the western United States and Alaska are started by lightning. In the past 10 years, more than 15,000 fires have been started by lightning.

Lightning Fact and Fiction

Fiction:  Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Fact:  Lightning has "favorite" sites that it may hit many times during one storm.

Fiction:  If it is not raining, then there is no danger from lightning.

Fact:  Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall.

Fiction:  The rubber soles of shoes or rubber tires on a car will protect you from being struck by lightning.

Fact:  Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.

Fiction:  People struck by lightning carry an electrical charge and should not be touched.

Fact:  Lightning-strike victims carry no electrical charge and should be attended to immediately.

Fiction:  "Heat lightning" occurs after very hot summer days and poses no threat.

Fact:  What is referred to as "heat lightning" is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction!

Things to know

When a storm is coming, look for darkening skies, flashes of light or increasing wind. Listen for the sound of thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightening.

  • Go to safe shelter immediately.

  • Find shelter in a building or car.

  • Keep car windows closed and avoid convertibles.

  • Telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Unplug appliances, avoid using the telephone or any electrical appliances. (Leaving electrical lights on, however, does not increase the chances of your home being struck by lightning.)

  • Don't take a bath or shower.

  • Turn off the air conditioner. Power surges from lightning can overload the compressor and damage the air conditioner! Draw blinds and shades over windows.

  • If windows break due to objects being blown by the wind of a storm, then the shades will prevent glass from shattering into your home.

If you are caught outside during a thunderstorm, you must act immediately:

  • If you are in the woods, take shelter under the shorter trees.

  • If you are boating or swimming, get to land and find shelter right away!

  • If you can go to a low-lying, open place away from trees, poles or metal objects.

  • Make sure the place you pick is not subject to flooding.

  • Become a very small target! Squat low to the ground. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible.

  • Do not lie flat on the ground - this will make you a larger target!

If someone is hit by lightning:

  • People who have been struck by lightening are safe to handle - they don't carry an electrical charge.

  • Call for help. Get someone to dial 911.

  • Being struck by lightening can cause burns or nervous system damage, broken bones and loss of hearing and eyesight. It is a very serious emergency.

  • If you know how, give first aid. If you know how and the person has stopped breathing, begin rescue breathing. If their heart has stopped beating, and you know how, give CPR.

Source:  Federal Emergency Management Agency