Lightning Strikes


Protecting Yourself in High Thunderstorm Winds

Assess the risk of dangerous thunderstorm winds by looking at the sky and your surroundings on the ground or water.

Look for these clues in the sky:

  • Warm, humid air: low visibility and unseasonably warm temperatures when coupled with high humidity are explicit danger signs.
  • Clouds change from white to dark gray or black.
  • Lightning flashes, falling hail, or the sound of thunder.
  • Blowing dust.
  • Wind-whipped trees or other vegetation.
  • Sudden increase in wave height.
  • A roll cloud in advance of a thunderstorm.
  • A rotating roll cloud.

Keep away from terrain traps:

  • Are the trees around you uniform in size, or are there some much taller trees that stick up above the canopy? Isolated trees significantly taller than the surrounding stand will act as sails, catching ore wind, and thus they are more likely to topple. Camp at a safe distance from them.
  • Are nearby trees healthy, or do they appear diseased or weakened by insects? Don't camp near trees that appear diseased or infested by insects. Caution signs include branches devoid of leaves, needles, or bark; trunks punctuated by woodpecker or flicker borings; and a coating of running sap or pitch. Such weakened trees will be the first to drop in a strong wind.
  • Is your location downwind of a gap, pass, channel, or canyon? Narrow openings in the terrain, such as gaps, passes, channels, or canyons, focus and accelerate the wind. If thunderstorm winds come blasting through such an opening, your tent (and possibly you) may go airborne! Avoid camping under the overhanging branches if at all possible.
  • Is there a hill, bluff, or large boulder upwind? Upwind bluff hills, or even large boulders or hedges upwind (to the west in most of North America, Europe, and Asia) can serve as windbreaks. Once you've selected a campsite, erect your tent into the wind. Use solid tent stakes and guylines. Without guylines, even a moderately strong wind can snap tent poles. Experienced campers have found the best anchor comes from attaching guylines about one-third to one-half of the way up the tent.
  • Do branches hang over your campsite? Try to avoid camping under overhanging branches and avoid large limbs entirely.

What To Do if You're Caught in Thunderstorm Winds

  • Get out of your tent. A tent offers little protection and will prevent you from seeing falling trees.
  • If you're in the woods, seek a stand of even-size trees. Avoid larger trees or trees that look dead or sick. Move toward a clearing or shoreline if possible.
  • If you're in a clearing or along a shoreline, stay there; don't run into the woods.
  • Crouch behind the side of a hill, bluff, or rock that's sheltered from the wind.
  • If large trees are already downed to the ground, seek refuge beneath one.
  • Crawl if the wind makes it too difficult to walk.
  • Cover your head and face to protect against airborne debris.

--Adapted from Lightning Strikes: Staying Safe Under Stormy Skies by Jeff Renner, ©2002, published by The Mountaineers Books.


How to Spot Lightning Sparked Sleeper Fires

A sleeper is a fire that may remain hidden underground for days or a week or even longer, typically smoldering in dried roots, waiting for above-ground conditions to dry out enough for it to flare up, igniting vegetation. One of the best clues that a sleeper may be smoldering underfoot is the presence on the ground of splintered pieces of tree or the shattered remains of a tree trunk. A lightning strike superheats sap and water within a tree, forcing rapid expansion that literally blows a tree up from the inside out. In some cases, a tree may not heat up enough to explode, but it will typically show a spiral pattern of cracks down the tree trunk. Near such trees, odds are high there may be a sleeper fire underground.

Of course, there may be other, more obvious signs of fire, including the smell of smoke or clouds that are typically cumulus or cumulo-nimbus; those with round bottoms are generated by fire. You can be certain of fire if the cloud has a boiling appearance or is tinted with shades of orange or brown; the latter are reflections of flames beneath and smoke carried upward.

Signs of an active fire:

  • Splintered pieces of tree on the ground
  • A shattered tree trunk, especially if it's blackened
  • Smell of smoke
  • Round-bottomed clouds that appear to "boil"
  • Clouds tinted brown or orange

--Adapted from Lightning Strikes: Staying Safe Under Stormy Skies by Jeff Renner, ©2002, published by The Mountaineers Books


Name Your Lightning

  • Red Lightning. A rather rare type of lightning that usually looks like a shining, reddish ball, roughly one foot in diameter, which may appear to float in midair, hiss, and occasionally explode loudly. Ball—or globe lightning, as it's also called—may also move rapidly along solid objects or disappear without a sound.
  • Blue Jets. Pillars of blue light that skyrocket from the tops of thunderstorms at speeds of 200,000 miles per hour. Blue jets typically reach altitudes of 30 miles above ground.
  • Heat Lightning. The luminous display of lightning too far away for its thunder to be heard. It's a misconception that heat lightning can occur in the absence of thunderstorms simply because of excessive heat.
  • Red Elves. Red disks of light that expand rapidly at altitudes of 60 miles above sea level and disappear as quickly as they appear. Generated by the electrical fields produced by intense lightning within and below the cloud.
  • Red Sprites. A fountain of red light erupting from the tops of nighttime thunderstorms, particularly in the Great Plains. Such displays are rather dim, but they may take on bizarre shapes and can extend from 18 to as much as 50 miles above sea level. They're created by the electrical fields generated by lightning within and below the cloud.
  • Rocket Lightning. A slower form of lightning that doesn't seem to be instantaneous, but rather moves like a skyrocket across the sky.
  • Saint Elmo's Fire. Not actually a type of lightning, but the shining discharge of electricity from objects, usually pointed ones, such as the masts of ships. The name was given by Mediterranean sailors in honor of their patron saint, since it usually appeared as a violent thunderstorm was waning.
  • Sheet Lightning. Not a separate type of lightning but actually the bright illumination of the cloud surrounding the lightning discharge.

--Adapted from Lightning Strikes: Staying Safe Under Stormy Skies by Jeff Renner, ©2002, published by The Mountaineers Books


How To Assess Lightning Risk

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I in the open?
  • Am I near or on isolated, tall objects?
  • Am I on or near water?
  • Am I near, wearing, or holding metal objects?
  • Am I feeling a tingling sensation or hearing a buzzing noise?
    (illustrate with fig 5-9: Photos of key risk factors)

If you're in the open, seek a more sheltered location. If a car or metal shed is available, get in; lightning travels along the outside of metal objects (just be certain not to touch metal handles and such). If shelter isn't available, get low. If you can't move, crouch down, with feet close together and hands over your ears for protection from close thunder. Don't lie down; remain a minimum of 15 feet away from other people.

Don't seek refuge under isolated trees. The highest object will tend to attract the stroke of lightning. If possible, seek groups of trees or shrubs of similar height. If the lone tree is the only choice of refuge, move away from it and seek the lowest ground available, following the tips for safety in open locations. If you're on a high, exposed ridge or peak, try to climb down as quickly as is safely possible. If low, rolling hills are nearby, seek refuge in a low spot. Such terrain is especially common on golf courses or along shorelines.

If you're near water, move away. If you're in the water, get out. Not only is the lightning a hazard, but gusty winds could churn up the water and swamp your canoe or small boat. Even wet, marshy ground can increase your risk of being hit by lightning.

Metal objects are like miniature lightning rods. Get as far away as possible from metal objects. If you're a hiker, drop your backpack-it may have a metal frame. If you're a climber, drop your ice ax, and remove your crampons. If your tent is staked with metal pegs, get away since a tent offers no protection. This also applies to graphite objects including fishing rods or tent poles. If you're a golfer, get away from your clubs! Don't hold onto a metal-tipped umbrella, either.

A tingling sensation, particularly on your scalp or the hair on your arms indicates movement of electricity. A loud buzzing noise or the smell of ozone are also danger signs, as is a bluish glow around rocks or a companion. Move immediately!

--Adapted from Lightning Strikes: Staying Safe Under Stormy Skies by Jeff Renner, ©2002, published by The Mountaineers Books

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