23 August 2006

Lightning precautions save lives

Those warm days on which thunder-and-lightning storms are likely to strike are also the days that send people in droves to some of the most dangerous places in a storm.

It's one of Nature's cruel ironies.

Those warm days on which thunder-and-lightning storms are likely to strike are also the days that send people in droves to some of the most dangerous places in a storm - golf courses, parks and beaches.

Although most know that seeking shelter under a tree is the last thing you should do, there's still some confusion about what constitutes a safe shelter.

Experts advise that a little bit of knowledge and caution can help you greatly reduce your risk of injury - or worse.

"The best protection from lightning is to be inside a home or building that has walls that are complete with plumbing or electrical wiring," says meteorologist Daphne Zaras, a scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

"Those make the building sort of a shell that conducts electricity down to the ground, should lightning strike," Zaras says.

Cars or buses are also safe, she says, because the metal frames protect you from the current.

Simply finding shelter under a covered picnic area or in a bus shelter, however, won't do the trick.

"It may protect you from the rain, but if lightning strikes, there's no wiring or plumbing to carry the current around you," Zaras cautions.

In fact, 100 years ago, the most common places for lightning fatalities were inside people's homes, says Ronald Holle, a research meteorologist at Global Atmospherics Inc.

"Since there were no phone lines or plumbing in houses, the lightning would come inside the house and splinter and hit people everywhere. Many people would be killed and then the homes, which were often made of wood, would catch fire."

Although houses are much safer today, lightning can still find its way into homes and buildings in a number of ways.

Despite being dismissed as myths, such activities as taking baths and talking on the telephone can indeed be dangerous during a electrical storm, Holle says.

"Especially in rural areas, if lightning strikes a telephone or power line, that surge can travel right into a building. After all, that's what the lines are for - to allow electricity to travel."

Holle, who has done lots of research on lightning-strike victims, says attendees at a recent conference for such victims included operators from three separate 911 call centres around the nation who'd been seriously shocked while wearing headsets when lightning struck their buildings.

City dwellers are much more protected from lightning than those in rural areas, explains Zaras, because lightning's nature is to find and strike the tallest structure around.

"Lightning strikes step down from clouds in 50-yard segments. As they step downward, they look about 75 yards in every direction to try to make contact. If nothing is found, it steps down another 50 yards."

That means even a sports stadium, for instance, can make a tempting target if there's no taller structure nearby.


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