One of the things in weather that fascinates me, and I’m sure many of you, is lightning. If you’re like me, then you could sit and stare at a lightning show forever. When you get the opportunity to see a storm that produces a lot of it, you oftentimes see all kinds of different types. You have bolts, some that appear to be a single strike, others fork or crawl across the sky and some just appear to flash like you’re taking a picture. Either way, it’s all mesmerizing. Let’s go through some of the different types so that the next time you catch a storm, you can impress your friends and family with your knowledge.
The National Severe Storms Laboratory does a great of job of going into detail on lightning. I’ll try to break it down and summarize it. Simply put, lightning is a spark of electricity in the atmosphere. That spark of electricity can be displayed in a number of ways that boil down to two different types: Cloud-to-Ground and Cloud-to-Air. With Cloud-to-Ground lightning, you can think of that as the big bolts that come from the cloud and reach the ground. This happens when you have negatively charged particles in a cloud meet up with positively charged particles on the ground. Those positively charged particles usually come from tall objects like buildings, poles or trees. When the two opposite charges connect, BOOM! Well, really it’s more like FLASH, then BOOM! The strike occurs which produces the thunder you eventually hear! In Cloud-to-Air lightning, basically the same process occurs but just within the cloud or clouds. So the bolt never reaches the ground but remains in the sky. Both of these types are generally taking place in thunderstorms at the same time. Cloud-to-Air happens more frequently than Cloud-to-Ground but it’s impossible to predict when and where they will occur. If all lightning were Cloud-to-Air, we wouldn’t have to worry about the dangers. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Cloud to air lightning
Cloud to ground lightning
As is often the case with Mother Nature, with the beauty comes a price to pay. And that is the danger of being struck by lightning. You may be surprised to know that there are actually 5 different ways you can be struck by lightning: Direct Strike, Side Flash, Ground Current, Conduction, and Streamers. With a Direct Strike, the main discharge channel or main bolt of lightning travels through a person. This type of strike would be most common when a person is out in an open field or over open waters. In these open areas, you become the tallest object. In a Side Flash, lightning hits another nearby object. It could be a tree or a power pole. Once it hits that object, a portion of the current then jumps to the person. This is a big reason why seeking shelter under a tree is not a good idea! With Ground Current strikes, energy travels from the strike along the ground. If you are in contact with the ground, then that current could flow through you. Because the ground current impacts a large area, it is the cause of the most deaths and injuries. Then you have Conduction. This is the one way that you could be injured or killed from a lightning strike even when you are indoors. Lightning strikes your home and then travels through wires, plumbing and other metal surfaces. This is why taking a shower, washing dishes, or being on corded phones is dangerous during thunderstorms. And lastly, you have Streamers. This is not as common a cause of injuries but is still a danger. This occurs when another point, separate from the main lightning bolt, discharges. If it comes in contact with you, you could be a strike victim.
According to NOAA, lightning kills an average of 49 people each year in the U.S. and causes hundreds of injuries. If you are lucky enough to survive a lightning strike, the effects are not so pleasant. It mainly impacts the nervous system but there can be other issues. The milder symptoms include: muscle soreness, headaches, and dizziness. Additional problems can be even more serious and life long. Difficulty sleeping, depression and even personality changes can result.
So what can you do to protect yourself from a lightning strike? It really is very simple: GO INDOORS! There truly is NO safe place outside when a thunderstorm is near. My friends and family always laugh at me when I run for indoor shelter the moment I hear a rumble of thunder or see a flash of lightning. For one, I don’t want to be that Meteorologist who gets struck by lightning but more importantly, I like my life. Whatever is outside (pool, golf course, etc.) will be there when the storm is over and is not worth dying for. And once you are inside, avoid touching anything electrical or anything that has to do with plumbing. As I wrote earlier, this is a path lightning can take if hit hits your home. Hopefully, you are now a bit more enlightened about the weather phenomenon. It can be visually spectacular but make sure you take it seriously because it can be deadly.