Athletic Training column

Lightning:The Shocking Truth

By Jenn Mroz | Jun 26, 2014
Photo by: File Jenn Mroz

Summer storms are here and with them come dangers that a lot of people take lightly.  According to the National Weather Service, the average number of deaths occurring annually from lightning is 51, while hundreds of others are severely injured.  
A lightning strike can produce 100 million volts of electricity, resulting in 50,000 degrees F (hotter than the surface of the sun).  It’s a weather phenomenon that needs to be respected.  Today, I’ll be dispelling some of the myths about lightning and give tips on how to stay safe when the storms roll in.
While there are conditions that make lightning more likely, you cannot predict when lightning will strike.  The presence of storm clouds and thunder isn’t necessary for lightning; it can strike 10 miles outside of a storm.  You also cannot outrun lightning.  
Once you see it, it has already hit an object.  One of the comments I’ve heard from coaches over the years was “let me know when you see another one”.  Well, the next one might be the one that hits much too close for comfort!  Case in point, another coach with whom I worked called practice at the first sound of distant thunder.  
When I mentioned my surprise at his quick decision, he replied that he had lightning strike the ground a few feet away from him once.  It was an experience he’ll never forget, and he treats any hint of impending lightning with the utmost respect.
The lightning we see in jagged bolts is called cloud to ground lightning.  Those flashes that seem to brighten the sky are called heat lightning.  
Even though heat lightning occurs from cloud to cloud, if conditions change and a charge finds an easier path to travel, it can turn into cloud to ground lightning without warning.  Both types of lightning have the potential to do harm.
If there is a thunderstorm or lightning in the area, seek shelter right away.  An enclosed building is best (staying away from the windows), but an enclosed metal vehicle will work, too.  
Open picnic shelters, canopies, and baseball dugouts are not safe.  Lightning is drawn to tall, pointy, isolated objects.  You’re safer staying away from trees and squatting down so that you are as small as possible.  You don’t want to lie flat on the ground, though, because that increases the amount of surface area that is in contact with the ground, which will give you more of a jolt if lightning strikes nearby.
There are ways we can determine how far away lightning has occurred.  The most common method is called the flash-to-bang ratio.  At sight of lightning, start counting slowly; stop when you hear thunder.  Divide that number by 5 and that is how many miles away the lightning struck.  
When it gets as close as ten miles, any outside activities should be suspended and everyone should seek safe shelter.  There are also many weather apps available on smart phones that give real-time detection and alerts.  Remember that they’re not predicting lightning, but recording where it has recently struck.
The rule of thumb we use for return to play is 30 minutes, lightning-free.  We start a timer at the first sight of lightning.  If there are any additional bolts seen, we re-start the timer.  There needs to be at least 30 minutes without lightning for it to be safe to return to the playing field.
When in doubt, it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution when dealing with the unpredictability of the weather.  
Until next time, stay safe and healthy.