On a clear day, many of us choose to go outside and partake in physical activity or simply enjoy the weather. However, beautiful sunny weather can change abruptly. Skies can become cloudy out of nowhere with thunderstorms breaking out shortly after that. Choosing a suitable shelter and strategy to stay safe can be vital at such moments.
Below are some tips from Meteorologist Jaco van Wezel to help you stay safe when you get caught in a thunderstorm.
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Find a good hiding place if possible
Try to find a decent location to shelter from the bad weather. Buildings are safe places to take shelter during more severe thunderstorms. So if you have the opportunity: go inside.
If no adequate house or building is within your direct surroundings, you can also try to get to your car and sit out the storm in there. Of course, your car can still be struck by lightning, but you would be protected from it.
There is a common belief that you are safe from lightning in a vehicle because of the rubber tires that insulate you. This is a myth and has been proven to be false.
The real reason you are protected when lightning strikes your car or truck is due to the fact it can act as a partial Faraday cage. Make sure that all windows are closed and that you keep your hands on your lap as much as possible.
If you are interested in what actually causes lightning, be sure to check out our article on the subject.
Keep away from open water
If there is no shelter and no vehicle in sight, it would be a sound strategy to first and foremost stay away from open water like rivers and lakes. Water conducts electricity, and if lightning strikes close by, you may get hit as well.
Be sure to make haste, we tend to start counting when we hear thunders in the distance in order to estimate the distance of the thunderstorm., but thunder can be heard up to 25 miles away, and lightning strikes have been documented to occur as far as 25 miles / 40 km from thunderstorms – known as a “bolt from the blue.” So if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be hit by lightning.
We published an article by Becky Blinger from the Colorado State University explaining how to accurately determine how far away lightning is.
Avoid high places
It would be best to stay away from elevated areas because lightning tries to find its shortest way to the ground.
Tall objects such as trees and masts are among the 'favorite' locations for lightning to strike. So make sure you are not under or right next to a tree or mast.
If you find yourself in a forest, you can elevate your chances of not getting hit by lightning by searching for a group of shorter trees to take shelter between, preferably in a lower area. But even in the case of smaller trees, the advice remains not to stand right underneath or too close to them.
Get low to the ground
When it's too late to find a good place to shelter place, crouch with your legs together, and try to lean on your toes to minimize contact with the ground. Doing so makes the contact area with the ground smaller making it more difficult for lightning to conduct current through you in order to reach the ground.
Warning: Although it may seem like a smart idea, never lie flat on the ground. Because in that situation, you create maximum contact with the ground, making it possible for lightning to hit you in multiple spots.
Indoor risks and measures to minimize them
Although the risks of lightning accidents indoors are less than outdoors, it is not completely safe. There are things you can do to limit the risks indoors as well:
Try to avoid washing your hands or taking a shower during a thunderstorm. As mentioned before, water conducts electricity. If lightning strikes a water pipe in the area, you can get a severe shock from the water in the shower (or to a lesser extent, from the tap)!
It may also be helpful to unplug appliances from the mains to prevent overvoltage. Surge voltage can destroy equipment and lead to fire!
Close windows and doors. This is primarily a measure to prevent damage from the fringe phenomena of thunderstorms (such as heavy rain and hard rain).
Taking these percussions will minimize the chance of accidents or injury. Stay safe!
Sources and further reading:
Vehicles and Lightning (National Lightning Safety Institute)