Lightning Safety Awareness Week Intro
2014-06-20 19:01:09.000 – Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Meteorologist
Lightning Safety Awareness Week is coming up (June 22-28, 2014) so I figured I would get a jump on things and start talking about lightning and lightning safety in the White Mountains. In the United States, it has been estimated that 25 million lightning flashes occur every year with every one of those flashes potentially becoming deadly. In fact, after flood related deaths, lightning is second when it comes to weather related fatalities each year in the US with several more victims succumbing to severe injuries. In New Hampshire, there has been one lightning reported fatality on the Franconia Ridge and another reported on Maine’s Mount Katahdin. While Mount Washington has had lightning related injuries and several narrow escapes, remarkably, no one has died from a lightning strike on Mount Washington – yet. With proper precautions though, ‘yet’ may in fact never occur.
The biggest precaution is being aware prior to an outdoor activity. Checking the higher summits weather forecast (or any forecast) should be a prerequisite in the days prior to any outdoor activity. If it calls for thunderstorms, postpone your trip or activity – the mountain will always be here another day.
If you are days into a hike and can’t postpone, be aware of the weather and safety locations. When monitoring the weather, know typical weather patterns for the area you are in and then continuously look for signs of developing thunderstorms such as dark skies, lightning or thunder, sudden temperature drops, sudden increases in winds in the direction of a cell, or shafts of rain below a cloud. While these can help you, none of them are foolproof. For instance, thunder – on a clear, calm day, can only be heard when things are 10 miles away. On a windy day though, this can get cut down to 5 miles or less. And while thunder is limited, lightning has a much larger range – it can sometimes travel 25 miles or greater (upwards of 50+ miles have been reported). Above you, you might have blue skies while a thunderstorm behind a ridgeline or two could still strike without warning. So again, you can monitor but the safest option is to not be out at all.
If, however, you are out and thunder roars, head indoors. While it is better to remain at an indoor location, if you are out, you should know ahead of time all the safe places to head to as soon as a threat is imminent. Small outdoor buildings like dugouts, rain shelters, tent platforms, sheds, bus stops, gazebos, etc. are NOT SAFE. You want a substantial building with wiring and plumbing; however, once inside, stay away from those wires and plumbing as these can conduct if your structure is struck. You will also want to stay away from windows and doors – so aim for the center of your structure.
If a substantial building isn’t an option, a hard-topped metal vehicle is your next option; avoid soft-tops, motorcycles, and golf carts. In your vehicle, the windows should be closed and you should avoid contact with metal and lean away from the windows and outer frame of your vehicle.
So, the two big themes take away from this comment are know before you go, and when thunder roars, go indoors. But this isn’t the end of this discussion. On Sunday I will continue this discussion with some pointers for what you can do in a worst case scenario in the backcountry.
Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Meteorologist