Staying alive when lightning strikes
July 6, 2017
Most of us who live in the high country enjoy the recreational opportunities provided by our high alpine meadows and mountain trails but there is an invisible danger lurking out there that can strike literally from out of the blue.
Thunderstorms and wild summer weather can move into a mountain valley in mere minutes, bringing with it rain, hail and deadly lightning. In late June representatives from the Lightning Data Center at St. Anthony's Hospital in Lakewood held a pair of seminars for first responders and citizens of Grand County, educating them on the very real dangers of lightning strikes and what they can do to protect themselves. Steve Clark, President of the Lightning Data Center, and Executive Committee member Carl Swanson, led the seminars.
The central message of the public seminar was the immense danger posed by lightning and the need to take proper precautions when a storm is raging. Around 300 people are struck by lightning in the US each year. Of those roughly about 10 percent will die from the strike. Those who survive, like Grand County resident Barb Stemple, are deeply impacted for life, often experiencing ongoing neurological issues such as short-term memory loss, fatigue, earaches, depression and more.
One key piece of advice provided by both Clark and Swanson was the absolute need to get to a safe space when lightning is occurring.
"If you are outside, there is no safe space," Clark said. "You want to cut your losses. If you are high up seek lower ground. It is better to be in a dense stand of trees than out in the open."
But the representatives from the Lightning Data Center recommended, if possible, that citizens get inside either a car with the windows rolled up or inside a modern building with both modern grounded electrical wiring and plumbing. According to Clark and Swanson the only truly safe places during lightning storms are those contained within structures that channel the energy from a lighting strike around the body and down into the ground, essentially serving as a Faraday Cage.
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Along with their plethora of advice the presenters offered many startling facts about lightning and debunked several myths. The average temperature of a bolt of lightning is 50,000 to 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Each bolt carries up to one billion volts of electricity and can reach a peak amp level of 30,000, remarkable when considering only one amp is needed to stop the human heart, according to the presenters.
There are roughly 4 million lightning strikes per day around the world and contrary to a very old adage lightning can and does often strike the same place on multiple occasions.
"Lightning is a completely random act of nature," Clark said. "We lay out rules of what it should and should not do, but Mother Nature likes to break the rules."
As he closed out the seminar Swanson noted how lightning safety, and retreating to safe spaces during storms, could impede planned summer activities but stressed the need to weigh the costs on both sides.
"We know it is inconvenient to stop your summer activity. It is annoying to stop for two hours to let the weather pass," Swanson said. "But tell me what is more inconvenient, to stop for a few hours or to stop to come see you at the hospital or at your funeral."