July 17, 2012

Lightning Safety

The last week has been one of the most lightning-packed in years around the Northwest and many local residents lack experience with lightning safety.   One blog reader told me how she and her friends were outside watching a lightning display and their hair started to stand on end, and then a lightning stroke hit nearby.  They are lucky to be alive.   If that happens to you remember that the danger is real and imminent.....move quickly to a safe location.

If your hair looks like this you either have a bad hairdresser or you are about to be hit by lightning.  Neither is good.

During the past week there have been thousands  f lightning strikes on trees, homes, and structures in our area.  The picture below shows what happened to a 125 ft tree in Lake Stevens when it was hit by lightning....split down the middle and is now kindling.

Standing under trees is a really bad idea during a thunderstorm--something I learned firsthand when I was an undergraduate at Cornell.  An intense thunderstorm hit the campus and some students in my dorm were watching from under a tree.  The tree was hit and several them were laid flat by the blast....they ended up in the hospital...and some of them were permanently affected.  Remember, if lightning strikes a tall object the current can descend the tree and jump to nearby objects (like YOU).  It can also reach the ground and spread around the wet surface.

If lighting is in the area, you are generally safe inside structures if you keep away from plumbing and electrical devices (no showers!, unplug your electronics and computers!).   Cars are good because even if they are hit, the current stays in the frame/body of the car.  If you are out in a field or level area, get away from trees or structures, find a low spot, and kneel or crouch down...DON'T lie flat on the ground---a nearby hit can send currents along the surface.  Covering your ears is not a bad idea either.

Official Lightning Position
There are few worse things to do in a lightning storm than play golf....open fields with lots of trees, cleated (grounded) shoes, lightning rod (golf club) in hand, optimize the danger.

Golf and Lightning Don't Mix
Some interesting lightning facts to keep you safe:

Lightning can and does strike the same place more than once.

Lightning can strike several miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud.  “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.

You will not always have warning from thunder.   Here in the NW we often have thunderstorms with very few lightning strikes.   Also, depending on atmospheric conditions the thunder sound wave may not reach you or propagate above your head.

Today there are a number of downloadable smartphone apps that keep track of your position and will warn you when a lightning storm approaches.  (I have not reviewed any of them)

Lightning Finder

Tonight there is a dying thunderstorm over the eastern slopes of the Washington Cascades after a day of lots of lighting east of the Cascade crest.  But we are not out of the woods yet...another possible thunderstorm period late Thursday/early Friday.


  1. I grew up on the east coast and as you might guess we had frequent and vivid thunderstorms. My grandfather was once lying in an iron-frame bed back in the 1920s in a small beach cottage at Rockaway Beach on Long island and was sent flying across the room by a lightning strike that came through the window. Yikes!

    He fared better than the great-uncle in Germany who was struck by lightning while carrying a rake over his shoulder while crossing a farm field...

  2. Good timely post, Cliff. Thanks!

    One clarification: When I spoke with you a few years ago about what to do about lightning at my outdoor concert series, I further researched the subject and found that national athletic organizations had done tremendous research in how to protect their charges from during their many outdoor events.

    The thing about kneeling if you are stuck out in a field without ANY way to get under cover isn't quite right. What they recommend is first taking off all metal on your body (wristwatch, rings, bracelets, etc.) so as to avoid burns when/if you are hit. Second, crouch down so only the front parts of your feet are touching the ground.

    The goal is to minimize your surface contact with the ground, and kneeling offers too many points.

    Lastly, put your fingers in your ears to partially protect from the noise, and make yourself as short as possible in that position.

    The nasty part is that you are not really safe until 30 minutes after the last nearby (like 10 or 20 miles away!) strike, so you have to stay put in your relatively safe spot for that long until you venture forth. A new lightning hit could occur at any time.

    I haven't looked further in the last couple years and so don't know if there's further evolution of opinion.

    Thanks again for all you do.

  3. I understand there's a web site that shows the locations of recent lightning strikes. You've posted screen shots from it. Could you tell us the URL? I couldn't find it through Google, just very low-resolution national maps.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Ellensburg has continued to be a crazy lightning show every night this week.

    Just heard thru kvnews that the Yakima Canyon Road is closed due to a mudslide 6 miles south of Eburg as well.

    We took the canyon road last weekend and were noticing that these storms seemed to be taking a toll with lots of rock debris near the road, etc

  6. "Official" position? LOL
    Actually, back east they often said if you could run to your car in two minutes or less then that was safer than staying in any field in any position.
    These sites might be of interest:
    World Wide Lightning Location Network (wwlln.net)
    Northwestern Weather Network Lightning page

  7. Cliff,
    My grandfather (1866-1957) believed firmly that thunderstorms followed rivers. When one threatened (at the farm in Southern Iowa) he would squint at the clouds for a while and then declare "we're gonna get it" or "nope, it'll go around. It's following Skunk River."
    Is there any validity to the river-thunderstorm affinity? If so, how come?

    Bob & Dee Simmons

  8. Speaking of lightning, thought many on this blog would find of interest the following spectacular photos and video of the thunderstorms which struck NYC and vicinity on 7/18.

    Art Davidson


  9. Thanks, JewelyaZ, but those don't look like what I'm after. From Tuesday's Seattle Times:

    "Mass heard the growl of thunder and punched up a website that tracks cloud-to-ground lightning. Sure enough, a new plus sign blinked over Puget Sound."

    I suspect he's reluctant to identify the web site for fear of overloading it.

  10. I should have read this on Tuesday! We're outside Tenino and are in the middle of predicted Thursday night storm right now!

  11. @franzamador

    WWLN is exactly what your looking for (that's what Cliff uses, AFAIK).

    But it's a commercial service: you have to pay for a subscription (or run a VLF site then you get the RT data for free). The UW runs a VLF RX and have one of the PIs of the network.

    There are no free lightning geolocation services (that I know of). It's a (big) business especially for insurance companies and the like.

  12. thunderstorm.vaisala.com has a free lightning explorer. I've used it for years.


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