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What is Lightning?
Lightning is the most dangerous and frequently encountered weather hazard that most people experience each year. Lightning is caused by a discharge of atmospheric electricity from one cloud to another or from a cloud to the earth. Lightning can travel 90,000 miles per second and a lightning bolt can generate heat in excess of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—a temperature five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
The sound of thunder is the superheating of molecules along the lightning channel which doesn’t happen until the cloud-to-ground path or visible path (lightning flash) is completed. Since sound travels more slowly than light, the thunder occurs after the flash.
The Dangers of Lightning
Lightning is an underrated danger and the second leading cause of storm-related deaths in the U.S., exceeded only by floods. In an average year, lightning kills approximately 60 people and injures hundreds more. Lightning strike victims often suffer permanent neurological disabilities and serious long-term after-effects, including heart damage, inflated lungs and brain damage. Loss of consciousness, amnesia, paralysis and burns are reported by many who have survived a lightning strike.
Lightning also causes deaths and injuries to livestock and other animals, thousands of forest and brush fires, as well as billions of dollars in damage to homes, buildings, communication systems, power lines and electrical systems.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collects information on weather-related deaths to learn how to prevent these tragedies. Many lightning victims say they were “caught” outside in a storm and couldn’t get to a safe place. With proper planning, these tragedies could be prevented. A portable, battery-powered, tone-alert NOAA radio can be a helpful safety measure for monitoring short-term forecasts of changing weather conditions.
Avoid the Lightning Threat
Most people enjoy outdoor activities. It’s imperative that organizers of these activities understand the dangers of lightning and implement a safety plan at the first signs of lightning or thunder. While the National Weather Service (NWS) issues severe thunderstorm watches and warnings for storms that produce damaging wind or hail, watches and warnings are not typically issued for lightning. Most outdoor activities rely on volunteer leaders, coaches or sports officials to make safety decisions, so it’s important that those in charge know to follow the lightning safety plan at the first sign of lightning or thunder. Don’t be afraid to ask about lightning safety and don’t be afraid to speak out during an event if conditions become unsafe. Lightning safety is a minor inconvenience that just might save a life!
Technical Information Provided by the Lightning Protection Institute