Lightning Shocks Southern Ontario

Just what is lightning anyway?

According to Wikipedia, it is a massive random atmospheric electrostatic discharge due to massive unbalanced electric charge build-up in the atmosphere… and is (often) accompanied by the loud sound of thunder.

A typical lightning strike is often over two kilometres long. Lightning is usually produced by cumulonimbus clouds. The sun heats the earth and water and produces warm, damp air which goes up and changes temperature. As this “steam” rises and then falls (as rain) through various climates and electrical fields found in a typical thunderstorm, they accumulate or spend electrons. This rising and falling of electrons and molecules separates them whilst building a powerful charge or electrical field between them in the clouds or between the clouds and the ground. These strong forces accelerate the electrons toward electron deficient areas. We then have a massive flow of electrons away from the bulk and toward places where there are not enough, otherwise known as lightning.

Satellite observations show us 75% of lightning strikes occur within clouds (or from cloud-to-cloud), and 25% flow from cloud to ground. We also find lightning during volcanic eruptions, dust storms, forest fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

The fear of lightning (and thunder) is Astraphobia.

The study of lightning is called fulminology.

According to the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences (located in Edmonton), lightning touches down throughout Canada millions of times each year. As a result, approximately 125 people are injured, and another 10 die country-wide on an annual basis. The majority of these incidents occur right here in southern Ontario. This is partially due to the population density and the frequency of lightning strikes. In the U.S. Florida is home to the majority of victims. In Ontario, most of the casualties occur in the summer between Thursday ad Saturday and are related to outdoor activities such as sports, hiking, working, and barbequing.

What exactly happens when lightning strikes?

A perfect example is a strike which occurred recently in Whitby, Ontario on a Sunday afternoon during an annual waterfront event called ‘Ribfest’.

According to Canadian Press, lightning blasted its way through an events tent, apparently rendering three people unconscious, and sending 17 to hospital. In an interview, one witness (who was working as a chip truck operator at the time) told the reporter “it sounded like gunshots… people were running everywhere”. Then mayhem erupted from within the crowded dining tent. “People were screaming… (they were) running around everywhere”.

According to Durham Regional Police, none of the injuries were life threatening.

The witness described seeing two people carrying a woman away on a table towards the medical centre which had been set up for the event. He also saw two police officers carrying two boys to the (centre).

According to Durham Police Sergeant Al Valks, 17 people were hospitalized after suffering burns. Apparently the electricity went up through their bodies via their feet… “it was painful”, he said. According to Rose and Steve Peddle, who were inside the tent during the incident, they saw the flash and it was like a bomb went off at exactly the same time. It was so very loud and people were screaming. The Peddles had been sitting at the table where the strike occurred, but luckily they had decided to move a few moments before it happened.

According to Colin O’Regan who was chairing the event, everyone immediately became involved with helping the injured and the response from police, fire, and paramedics was quick.

This reporter had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Aaron Lazarus, communications director for Lakeridge Health Hospital Oshawa, where some of the strikees were held briefly. When asked about the number of people who were actually injured in the blast Mr. Lazarus explained: “17 people were injured”. “9 people were brought in by ambulance, and another 25 showed up (by car)”. “Some were treated… at Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, and the rest were taken to (Rouge River Valley) hospital”.

When this reporter asked Mr. Lazarus about the type of treatment the patients had received during their stay at Oshawa hospital, he replied, “… within hours they were out… after their heart (rates) were (found to be) stable”. Mr. Lazarus was unable to discuss the situation wherein 3 people had fallen to the ground, apparently unconscious, as he had not attended the ‘Ribfest’ earlier that day. When asked to comment on the young man who had apparently received minor burns to his legs, Lazarus explained politely, “All i can say… is, the patients admitted (ranged in age) from 1-59”.

There are 4 major types of contact:

Direct Strike (Bolt hits a person, often to the head if the person is standing)

Contact Voltage (Lightning hits something a person is touching- i.e. golf club, umbrella, wired telephone, or tent pole, and enters the body)

Flash Over/Splash Voltage (When lightning hits a nearby object (tree, tent pole, wire fence) then arcs over to a person

Step or Ground Voltage: Occurs when lightning hits the ground and the current fans out in all directions. This type of contact can affect several individuals at once. (i.e. a soccer field full of players)

When one comes into contact with lightning, the person may suffer immediate injuries such as burns, heart attack, or even stop breathing. CPR should be performed right away. About 90% survive a strike, but sometimes suffer serious long-term disabilities such as neurological, physiological, and psychological problems.

The 30-30 rule describes a method whereby one can avoid a strike simply by counting the seconds and/or minutes between flash (lightning) and bang (thunder). When the time between flash and bang is less than 30 seconds (about 9 km away) you should already be in a safety shelter, as it could strike again right where you stand. Sound travels at around 300 metres per second. When it has been at least 30 minutes since the last thunder bang, it is safe to leave the shelter.

The best way to survive a lightning strike is simply to not be there in the first place.