Ask Josh: All About Lightning!

It's a killer! Interesting facts and safety tips.

You don't need me to tell you spring 2009 was very stormy in our region.   Countless days of heavy rain, flooding, hail, high winds, a couple of tornado touch downs and yes, a ton of lightning!  We here at WSAZ and myZ have taken our fair share of hits earlier in June causing a lot of damage to expensive electronic equipment!

It's this time of year we need to be extra cautious when being outside when thunderstorms are in the forecast.

A blog reader by the name of Megan, writes: "I was just wondering what is it that causes thunder? I was always told when I was younger it was the clouds bumping into each other; but I was wondering what the real scientific explanation was."

Very good question, Megan.  I was also told that when I was a little by my mom.  But even at a young age I remeber saying to her, if that were the case then why don't we hear thunder all the time since clouds are always bumping into each?  I believe I was about 10 years old at the time and looked it up in one of my first weather books I read.  Yes, even at a young age I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist.  

Here's what causes thunder:  The reason why lightning is always accompanied by thunderthunderthunder is because the thunderthunderthunder is caused by the bolt of electricity produced in a lightning strike.  The deep rumbling and sharp cracks of thunderthunderthunder are produced as the air around the lightning bolt is super heated up to 60,000 degrees (about 5 times hotter than the sun's surfaces) and rapidly expands.  As the air cools and contracts, it creates a shock wave which manifests itself as thunderthunderthunder.  The closer the lightning is, the louder the clap of thunderthunderthunder will be.  Usually you can only hear thunder from no more than about ten miles from a lightning flash.  But you can see lightning at night from up to a hundred miles away.  Most folks call that heat lightning but it's actually called distance lightning.  Heat doesn't cause it but we usually see it on warm summer nights so that's how it got that name. 

The photo below was submitted by a lady named Shelly in Boyd County, Kentucky in late May.  It shows damage to an Oak Tree from a lightning strike.  Since lightning is so hot it made the sap in the trunk boil and then cuased bark to blow out from the tree.  Thankfully no one was near when the lightning hit.  This tree will soon die as most trees do after they get hit. 

Below is a photo of eleven cattle that were killed in southern Germany after a bolt of lightning hit the tree they were huddled under to get out of a rainstorm.  A bold reminder why you should never seek shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm!

An undated photo provided by German police shows dead cows lying under a tree in Sexau, southern Germany, on Wednesday July 30, 2008. The eleven cattle were killed in southern Germany after a bolt of lightning hit the tree they were huddled under to get out of a rainstorm, police said Thursday.

AP Photo

Lightning Safety Tips:

IF OUTDOORS...Avoid water. Avoid the high ground. Avoid open spaces. Avoid all metal objects including electric wires, fences, machinery, motors, power tools, etc.  Unsafe places include underneath canopies, small picnic or rain shelters, or near trees as we saw in the pictures above.  Where possible, find shelter in a substantial building or in a fully enclosed metal vehicle such as a car, truck or a van with the windows completely shut. If lightning is striking nearby when you are outside, you should:

A. Crouch down. Put feet together. Place hands over ears to minimize hearing damage from thunder.

B. Avoid proximity (minimum of 15 ft.) to other people.

IF INDOORS... Avoid water. Stay away from doors and windows. Do not use the telephone. Take off head sets. Turn off, unplug, and stay away from appliances, computers, power tools, & TV sets. Lightning may strike exterior electric and phone lines, inducing shocks to inside equipment.

SUSPEND ACTIVITIES for 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder.

INJURED PERSONS do not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. Apply First Aid procedures to a lightning victim if you are qualified to do so. Call 911 or send for help immediately.

According to the National Weather Service about 73 people die from lightning strikes a year in the U.S.  You have a much better chance of getting hit by lightning than winning the lottery!

Keep those great question coming and thanks for reading! 

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