As purple thunderheads rolled in one afternoon last week, I struck up a friendly conversation with a neighbor in our driveway and we began swapping lightning stories. The tales we’d grown up hearing about the threat of lightning lead us down a trail of questioning, asking if these stories were credible or hyperbole. I also recently heard a piece on the radio talking about the surprising number of people who survive lightning strikes and live to talk about it.
Then, to debunk what seemed like obvious knowledge, my 11-year old offered up this statement, “mom, you know that lightening comes up from the ground instead of striking you from above.” He’s a little wizard, so I knew he must know something I didn’t. Clearly, there’s more to learn.
Were we in danger if the sky overhead is still blue? Were all the tips to avoid getting struck even credible? Why were you more likely to get struck by lightning on water and are you safer in the water or in a boat? We both came away from the conversation with more questions.
To find some answers, I investigated and it turns out that National Weather Service has an entire myth-buster page dedicated to lighting myths and truths. I’ll share a few that stood out to me.
• Rubber-soled shoes and tires. Kids love this one. The myth claims if you are wearing rubber soled sneakers, you’re safe. Not so. Similarly, rubber tires on a car do nothing to protect you. It’s the steel frame of your vehicle that transmits the current from a strike to the ground that protects you in a car. If you do not touch any metal parts of the vehicle, you may be safe from a strike. But kids, your Nikes won’t help you out.
• This next one is perhaps the most upsetting because it has been taught to me in multiple wilderness safety courses. Crouch down or lay flat if you find yourself in a thunderstorm. The logic goes if you make yourself smaller, closer to the ground, you are less likely to get hit. There’s no evidence to support this and the National Weather Service warns against it because the ground, especially when wet, can act as a conductor. They still teach the lightning pose for survival classes because it may reduce your risk for severity of a strike if it travels to you from the ground, but again there’s not much evidence to support this claim.
• Lightning strikes the tallest object, so you are safer under trees. Also, not true. They advise never to shelter under an individual tree or rocky cliff. The best they offer is to find shelter in a house with some metal. How is that supposed to help if you are in the back country? Well, they offer no good solution to this predicament other than seeking safer terrain, lower lying depressions, valleys, or near smaller trees. They also note you’re no safer in your tent. Great.
• You can’t get struck if there’s no rain. Not so. While standing in my driveway when the purple cloud moved in across the valley, we were under bright blue sky and still at risk. The NWS states that if you hear thunder, you are close enough to get struck. Lightning bolts, or leaders as they are called by the scientists, can travel up to 10 miles away. Yikes.
• What about the risk of being in or on the water? Which is safer? Neither. For swimmers, you are safer under the water than at the surface, but you’re better off to kick to shore.
Oh, and that thing my son said about lightning travelling up from the ground, it’s true. Upward lighting occurs after a cloud-to-ground strike, where a negative charge travels upward from a building or tall object.
Odds are slim to be struck by lightning, it’s less than one in a million. Even better, 9 out of 10 people survive a strike We are entering a stable high-pressure system for the next week, so chances are slim to see the sky shows of June.