Every year 20-50 people are killed by lightning in the United States according to statistics kept by the National Weather Service. It’s one of the leading killers of severe weather, but understanding what all of the dangers are around lightning is key to keeping yourself from being a statistic.
Just this evening, a lightning strike at a golf course in Wichita Falls, Texas left a scene that Anna Garcia posted on social media. This has begun to make the rounds on the internet and really helps to highlight one of the greatest dangers of lightning.
In the photograph, notice how the lightning not only struck the course, but fanned out across the surface of the ground. This can happen in open field areas, but is most common through the root system of trees. Since trees are commonly struck by lightning, this carrying of the charge can indirectly strike someone nearby. In these cases, people have reported to be literally blown out of the shoes they were wearing when they were struck from the current below them. Even this partial strike can be deadly or at the very least give the person long-term injury from the electrical current.
So, there comes down to five primary ways that you can be struck by lightning:
- Directly strike – hard to imagine how anyone could survive that much electricity as this is when someone was in the direct path of the initial strike.
- Side strike – a nearby object is struck by lighting and an arc of that electricity reaches out and strikes someone nearby.
- Ground current – (see photo above) electricity from nearby lightning travels through the ground and sends the electricity up from the ground, impacting people a distance away. This is the most common way people are killed or injured from lightning. Because it is not a direct strike, one might be able to survive this amount of electricity (not always), but serious injuries are still likely.
- Conduction – lightning strikes a conductive material (like a fence, water pipeline, electrical lines, etc.) and can carry the charge a great distance.
- Streamers – lightning is formed when streamers reach down from the cloud, trying to make contact with the ground. Most of the time there is only one that reaches the ground. If two reach, but only one is the main current of electricity, you could still be shocked from the other streamer.
One thing to note, this all happens in a very short period of time as lightning is amazingly fast. The three stages of lightning–electricity leaves the cloud (stepped leader), electricity reaches upward from the surface (upward streamer) and return stroke (the bright flash we consider to be the “bolt” of lightning–all happen within 1/60th of a second. Keep in mind these other dangers when lightning is striking nearby. Avoid electrical appliances, running water, phone lines, etc. while inside and avoid spending time outdoors any time there is lightning and you can greatly increase your odds of staying safe.
— Storm Track Chief Meteorologist Matt Miller