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.

When Lightning Strikes

While lightning may seem to be a random and completely unpreventable occurrence, injuries from lightning are not. Private property owners may be legally responsible for ensuring that their guests remain safe and unharmed from lightning bolts.

Prevention

Although it is impossible to predict when and where lightning may strike, property owners can take preventative measures to ensure your safety. Lightning rods are commonly installed on the roof of a building or home in order to prevent fires and/or electrocution from occurring.

A lightning rod is a metal rod or pole that is installed at the top of building or house that has an electrical wire that travels to the ground (commonly referred to as a “grounding wire”). If the building or structure were to be struck by lightning, the bolt would go through the rod and the electricity will travel down the wire to the ground, thus preventing a fire or electrocution from occurring.

Protection

In addition to (or instead of) a lightning rod, there are other protective measures that can be taken to avoid being struck by a lightning bolt. For example, during a thunderstorm, it is advised that you do not play in large fields or swim, as this may make you more susceptible to being struck. When lightning travels through a body of water, it can cause shocks to occur elsewhere in the water.

Liability

If you were struck by lightning while on private property, the property owner may be liable for your injuries. While such legal cases are rare, property owners do have a responsibility to ensure reasonable safety for their guests. This may include taking such measures as installing lightning rods or warning guests about the dangers of being outside during storms.

Zap! Watch Out – Lightning Safety in the Mountains

I love hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains and I have learned how important it is to plan all of my activities early in the day. This is because during the afternoons in the Rockies there are often storm clouds and lightning over the high peaks. You do not want to be anywhere high up in the mountains during a lightning storm because there is nowhere safe to go. Keeping that in mind, here are some general tips to minimize the risk and keep you safer when you are outside during a lightning storm.

To begin with though, I want to give a little bit of background information so that the risk from lightning is clear. Every year in the United States there are about 49 people killed by lightning. That number may seem high, but compare that to the 90,000 people that die in car accidents every year. That is almost 1,500 times more than die from lightning. Yet, we do not let that keep us from driving in a car. Likewise, you shouldn’t let the fear of lightning keep you from enjoying the mountains.

Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area. That could be a tall tree, boulder, or building. It is important to keep this in mind as you think about what you should do to minimize your risk in a lightning storm. I say minimize your risk here as opposed to be completely safe, because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that there is nowhere outdoors completely safe during a lightning storm.

NOAA recommends that you get into a substantial building that is completely enclosed and has plumbing and electricity. If you can’t do that, then here are some tips on what to do to minimize your risk, and make you as safe as possible.

The first thing to do is to stay out of the mountains if a lightning storm is coming. Keep your eyes on the weather or forecast and if the forecast is for lightning storms don’t go high up in the mountains. This means the best way to be safe is to simply not go in the mountains if you know a big lightning storm is coming.

However, if you are going to head up for some fun in the mountains remember what I said in the beginning, storms typically come later in the afternoon in the mountains. So, if possible plan your hikes and activities early in the day. Do not go for a long hike that will have you up high on a mountain later in the day. This is like the old saying: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to not be outside during a storm.

Here are a bunch of things that you should never do during a lightning storm. First, you should never take shelter under an isolated tree. The tree will attract the lightning and increase the odds of your getting struck. If the lightning strikes the tree you will not get a direct strike, but you may get hit by a surface arc, which is a short electric burst that goes out from the base of the tree in the air. Or you may feel the ground current if you are near an object that gets struck by lightning. The area surrounding a strike often has an extremely high voltage current that travels in the ground.

Secondly, never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter. Both of those may attract a lightning strike and you may feel the surface arc or ground current. Third, never lie flat on the ground. That simply makes you a bigger target and assures you will feel any ground current in the area. Contrary to what you may think, a tent is not a safe place to shelter. While a tent may keep you dry from rain, the metal tent poles will conduct electricity.

Now, that we covered what not to do, here are some things to do in a lightning storm. First, get away from water such as ponds, lakes, or other bodies of water. Water conducts electricity. Secondly, get away from open fields or the tops of ridges and hills. If you are in these places you will be the tallest object around and increase your chances of being struck. Third, you should get in your car if you are at a campground and your car is nearby. This is not the safest, but it is better than your other options.

The best place to go when you are outdoors often depends where you find yourself when the lightning storm comes. If you are in a forest look for a group of shorter trees and take shelter under them. This is because the lightning will strike the taller trees in the forest. If you are in a group spread out to prevent the current traveling between you, from one person to another. If you are in open areas, look for lower areas in the terrain and seek shelter there. This could be a dry ravine or valley, but not one with water in it.

Finally, as a last measure if you have thought about everything else and you are simply stuck somewhere outdoors, get down low. Get into a squatting position with your arms wrapped around your knees. Keep your feet together and make yourself into a ball. Try to make yourself comfortable as you may sit like this until the storm and immediate threat has passed, which could be quite some time.

Hopefully, you will never need to use these precautions in the mountains. But, personally, I feel safer going up to the mountains with my kids knowing these things.