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Lightning Safety

Each year about 25 million lightning strikes hit the U.S. Lightning can reach 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit - hotter than the surface of the Sun! While floods are the deadliest weather hazard in the U.S., lightning comes second in that infamous roster, with about 66 people killed each year - that's more than are killed by tornadoes or hurricanes. Added to the fatalities are the injured - 250 to 300 in a typical year. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation may be used to revive some lightning strike patients, but some survivors have serious long-term injuries.

An important lightning safety saying is "when thunder roars, go indoors" - since a substantial building, effectively grounded by plumbing and wiring, is the least dangerous place to be during a thunderstorm. Small sheds, tents, or other shelters may keep you dry, but do not protect you from lightning. A solid-roofed car can be a comparatively safe place, as the lightning charge typically will travel over the shell of the vehicle on its path to the ground. (Convertibles and soft-tops do not provide such protection).

Outdoors can be a very dangerous place to be during a lightning storm. If you can get indoors, do so. If you can't - say, if you are hiking and are miles from a protecting structure or vehicle - try to minimize your exposure. NO place outdoors is safe - the following tips from the National Weather Service can make your exposure only a little less dangerous:

  • Do NOT seek shelter under tall isolated trees. The tree may help you stay dry but will significantly increase your risk of being struck by lightning. Rain will not kill you, but the lightning can!
  • Do NOT seek shelter under partially enclosed buildings
  • Stay away from tall, isolated objects. Lightning typically strikes the tallest object. That may be you in an open field or clearing.
  • Know the weather patterns of the area. For example, in mountainous areas, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon, so plan to hike early in the day and be down the mountain by noon.
  • Know the weather forecast. If there is a high chance of thunderstorms, curtail your outdoor activities.
  • Do not place your campsite in an open field on the top of a hill or on a ridge top. Keep your site away from tall isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine, or other low area. A tent offers NO protection from lighting.
  • Wet ropes can make excellent conductors. This is BAD news when it comes to lightning activity. If you are mountain climbing and see lightning, and can do so safely, remove unnecessary ropes extended or attached to you. If a rope is extended across a mountain face and lightning makes contact with it, the electrical current will likely travel along the rope, especially if it is wet.

If lightning is in the immediate area, and there is no safe location nearby, stay a little apart from other members of your group so the lightning won't travel between you if hit. Keep your feet together and sit on the ground out in the open. If you can possible run to a vehicle or building, DO so. It is much safer than sitting on the ground.

Others might suggest that a "crouch" position, low down with feet close together, is marginally less hazardous. And while thunderstorms in the afternoon do occur within some weather patterns, thunderstorms can occur at any time of day.

Remarkably, no one has died from a lightning strike on Mount Washington - yet. However, there have been close calls on Mount Washington and on Mount Chocorua; in the White Mountains, the Franconia Ridge has seen a lightning fatality, and elsewhere in New England, Maine's Katahdin has claimed at least one life through lightning. Given the number of visitors to Mount Washington, and the fact that thunderstorms - some brief, some lasting hours - occur with some regularity, personal vigilance is required to maintain safety. Checking the forecast before a hiking trip - especially to the above-treeline regions - should be a given. When thunderstorms significantly threaten, staying below treeline should be the standard practice. But don't rely on the forecast alone - keep attuned to the weather that is occurring around you, and to clouds building on the horizon. Head down below treeline at the first sign of an approaching thunderstorm.

In a typical year, Mount Washington will experience 16 "thunderstorm days" - the greatest chance of those is from April through September, but such storms can occur at any time of year. Even a mid-summer thunderstorm can bring cold temperatures, frozen precipitation (such as pelting hailstones), and winds of hurricane force or greater - as well as lightning.

There's no sense in us re-writing the substantial information and advice which the National Weather Service offers on their website - we'd recommend that you visit the site and learn from it:

http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/index.htm

Another site of interest to outdoors enthusiasts is the following from the National Outdoor Leadership School:

http://www.nols.edu/resources/research/pdfs/lightningsafetyguideline.pdf

Also worth checking is this brief piece from the National Lightning Safety Institute:

http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_pls/ploutdoor.htm

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