With the COVID-19 pandemic still very present in America, many people have taken to congregating, exercising and spending their free time outdoors. With the added protectant of social distancing, experts say the risk of contracting the virus outside is small.
However, the outdoors holds its own risks from Mother Nature. Lightning kills more than 50 people per year and many more suffer debilitating injuries, such as electrical burns, seizures, memory loss, temporary blindness and hearing loss.
There are old wives’ tales about how to protect oneself from a lightning strike. Redstone Test Center lightning subject matter experts Jeff Craven and Tom Roy have spent close to 40 years at RTC testing effects of lightning strikes on virtually every type of Army ordnance and vehicle. While a lightning strike is never good, a lightning strike on a weapons system could be catastrophic.
After a career spent studying the effects of lightning, Craven sets the record straight.
“Some of the biggest misconceptions about lightning is if you get caught outside in a lightning storm, you need to get in a crouching position low to the ground so it reduces your likelihood of getting struck by lightning,” he said. “That’s not true. Natural lightning occurs at millions of volts and the process of how lightning is formed is you have streamers that originate from the ground and go upward. Then you have the streamers, the arc that is coming down from the cloud. That’s why you see the jagged crooked nature of the lightning arcing down. When it gets close to the ground, whichever streamer has the highest potential generated, generally that is where the lightning will attach to.”
Also, with ground current traveling up to 60 feet from a lightning strike, standing away from a tall object will not protect a person, Craven said.
“The bottom line is if you get caught outside during a lightning storm, you need to seek shelter immediately. There is not a lot you can do in an outdoor environment.”
Even when inside, there are still precautions to take. Craven said people should distance themselves from landlines, windows and electrical outlets. “Move away from anything with a hard wire connection (conductive path) – and no hairdryers,” he cautioned.
RTC facilities are open-air, and the lightning that they simulate at Redstone represents only the current part of a direct strike lightning event, not the voltage part. They replicate the four components of a direct lightning strike (initial strike, intermediate strike, continuing current and restrike component) at 200,000 amperes and up to 1 million volts. Why not duplicate the voltage, too? Craven said natural lightning occurs at hundreds of millions of volts and controlling that voltage is a technical challenge – their simulated lightning does not always travel on its intended path. Fortunately, due to the safety procedures developed over the years, Craven has never found himself in the path of an unexpected lightning current.
“It’s been 38 years and I still have all of my fingers and toes,” he said. “But I do have a definite respect for lightning.”
Take these steps for lightning safety
The Garrison Safety and Risk Management Office has compiled these lightning safety tips:
• Check local TV weather reports and weather apps prior to beginning outside activity.
• Seek shelter in fully enclosed buildings and remain in place until 30 minutes after hearing the last sound of thunder.
• If a safe building or structure is not available, stay in a hard top vehicle with rolled up windows.
• After hearing thunder, do not use corded telephones except for an emergency call. Cellphones and cordless phones can be used safely.
• Indoors stay away from doors and windows and take off headsets. Lightning can strike exterior electric lines and induce shocks to inside equipment.
• Avoid outdoor unsafe areas such as: high ground, open spaces, metal objects, near or under trees, canopies, tents, pavilions or small picnic shelters.
• Stay away from water and immediately get out of pools, lakes, etc. Water does not attract lightning but it is an excellent conductor of electricity.
A lightning strike victim does not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. If qualified to do so, provide first aid procedures for a lightning victim. Always call 911 and seek help immediately. For more information on lightning safety, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, safety website: www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.