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A Bolt from the Blue: Some Lightning Safety Tips for Lightning Awareness Week

News flash (not to be confused with a lightning flash): Lightning Awareness Week runs through Saturday, June 30.

JRTest your high-voltage knowledge with this lightning-awareness quiz provided by Seattle television weather forecaster Jeff Renner (chief meteorologist at NBC affiliate KING-TV) and author of Mountain Weather:

If a storm that includes lightning quickly develops while you're in high-elevation backcountry, your best move is to descend to a lower elevation. If that's not possible, which is your next best option?
a)      Lie face down in a shallow open space.
b)      Stand within a cluster of trees with similar heights.
c)      Shelter yourself beneath a tall tree.
d)      Sit in an open space, away from trees.
The correct answer: B.

Answer A is decent advice if you're facing a tornado, but not lightning. Renner explains:

"It's not a good choice because of the posture, lying down. The difference in electrical potential between your feet and head would be maximized, as would your exposure to ground currents. The best posture in open areas is a crouch with only your feet in contact with the ground, looking down (to protect your vision from bright flashes) and your hands covering your ears (protecting against hearing loss)."

bookAnswer D is a poor option. "You're more exposed," Renner says. Standing next to an isolated tree (Answer C) should also be avoided. "Taller objects, including trees, tend to 'draw' the stroke," he says.

Standing within a group of trees with similar heights is your best choice, Renner explains: "You've minimized the chance of being exposed, and because all of the trees are of similar size, the odds of the tree nearest your position getting hit is reduced."

Renner, a skier, climber, backpacker and all-around outdoor guy, offers a few additional tips:

• A cave can be a good choice, but only if it's a deep cave. Currents can jump from the roof to the floor (through you) in shallow caves. Wait 30 minutes if possible after the last flash/bang to move to a more exposed location.

• Practice the flash-to-bang principle to assess thunderstorm distance and direction of motion. Start counting in seconds at the flash; stop counting at the bang. Divide by 5 for the distance in miles. Do this repeatedly to see if the distance is increasing (the thunderstorm is moving away from you) or decreasing (it's moving toward you).

A lightning-safety tip sheet published by Grand Canyon National Park (where lightning storms are common between July and September) echoes Renner's advice and adds a few others for park visitors when lightning is a threat:

• Move away from canyon rims, rocky outcrops and other open areas.
• Get to an appropriate shelter—a substantial building, enclosed car (windows closed), or shuttle bus—quickly.
• Campers: Wait out the storm in a vehicle or other safe structure, not in a tent.
• Do not touch or be in contact with any metal on the vehicle or structure.

What's been your most harrowing encounter with lightning in the outdoors? I've witnessed a bolt zap a tree about 150 yards away. Happily it did not start a fire (the last thing Rocky Mountain states need right now), but the noise was shockingly loud.

Item of interest: On Thursday (June 28) Britian got rocked by a swarm of thunderstorms that generated 110,000 lightning bolts, a record figure. In response, the UK edition of The Huffington Post assembled a collection of amateur lightning-strike videos.

Below is an interesting time-lapse video of a lightning storm formation originally found in Phil Plait's Bad Astronomer blog for Discover magazine: 

Be safe out there.

NPS photo below by Michael Quinn, courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park. Taken at Mather Point, South Rim.

Posted on at 1:49 PM

Tagged: Jeff Renner, Mountain Weather, lightning and weather

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