Lightning: A Spring Killer on the Loose

© May 2, 2011; by Dan A. Gold, MD

     The weekend finally arrived with early clear skies and brief promise of spring soccer, tennis, and softball activities for parents and school students alike. As children took to the fields and courts, the games were on. Unfortunately, this day, mother nature was brewing surprise: lightning. A potential real killer, the first early afternoon rumblings of thunder brought memories of lightning facts and health prevention.

     Of all storm related deaths, on average, lightning is the number two killer, superceded only by floods. Why? No doubt because even a small developing storm that can muster only a single lightning bolt can, and occasionally does, kill. Yet only ten percent of lightning strike victims die immediately. Ninety percent live on and must sometimes endure life long injury – perhaps cardiac, but usually neurologic. Think of the incredible physical properties of lightning.

     The temperature of a lightning bolt can reach 54,000 deg. F. This is 5 times the surface temperature of the sun! Thankfully, it lasts only a split second. Air is superheated, of course, and expands explosively according to the laws of physics. This produces a pressure wave which travels through the atmosphere: thunder. A long held rule of thumb is that thunder travels at one mile per 4 seconds, however, it may be faster depending on atmospheric conditions. Counting seconds between the preceding flash and following thunder may not yield an accurate distance to danger. Persons outside should take no solace from the fact that the lightning seemed to strike 2 or three miles away. It is well known that lightning can strike as far away as 10 miles from the main storm. Indeed, according to the National Weather Service, most lightning strike deaths occur well before a thunderstorm passes directly overhead and well after the storm has passed. This implies that it is a mistake not to seek shelter quickly when thunder is first heard, or to leave shelter after the rain, wind, and thunder seem to have passed away from your location. Once shelter is sought, the rule of thumb is to stay sheltered until no thunder has been heard for 30 minutes. When thunder roars, GO INDOORS!

     What qualifies as shelter though? Any substantial structure, which is not open, and which contains wiring, plumbing and internal areas well away from such fixtures is good. Places to avoid are convertible vehicles, open porches, gazebos, baseball dugouts, tents, or outdoor areas in close proximity to water or tall structures such as trees. Immediately move away from steel fences and support structures. Persons caught in open outdoor areas should avoid hill tops and tall vegetation. When in a group of people, spread out so if someone is struck, others can render first aid following the basics of sustaining airway, breathing and circulation. Using wired telephones or appliances is dangerous, while wireless or cellphones are safe.

     Remember, lightning is one of the most majestic and powerful of all natural forces on this earth. It creates ozone which shelters us from lethal ultraviolet radiation. Some biologists think that lightning played a hand in the creation of life on this planet, perhaps powering the formation of amino acids in the atmosphere and waters of the earth.

     Conversely, such power cannot be taken lightly as it also carries with it destruction and death. When you hear thunder or see lightning, take this seriously. Your life may depend upon your quick, disciplined decision to act.