Though it’s a common atmospheric phenomenon with over 8 million known lightning bolts flung from the heavens every day, there are still some mysteries that scientists don’t quite understand. We do know that in storm conditions clouds act like giant capacitors, storing up electrical energy. Lightning is the discharge of this energy between the ground and the cloud.
With an average 30,000 Amperes of charge, there’s enough electrical power in a single bolt of lightning to power 3500 kettles or to light up 250 houses. The core of the bolt is five times hotter than the sun.
We could go into much more detail, but this isn’t a science lesson – the only other thing you need to know is that if you’re hit by lightning, you might die. Instantly. How could you possibly survive that? Fortunately for you, we know.
According to David Hand’s book The Improbability Principle, the chances that you’ll be struck and killed by lightning in the course of your lifetime are 300,000 to 1. Some statistical sources halve that to 1 in 140,000. Either way you look at it, those are pretty long odds… You’re more likely to be legally executed than are killed by lightning (though countries that do have the death penalty don’t tend to fry criminals any more). More people are killed by dogs.
The numbers start to look even better when you consider that an astonishingly high number of people struck by lightning live to talk about it. Sometimes more than once.
Park ranger Roy Sullivan survived a confirmed seven direct strikes by lightning during his lifetime. Children of the 70s may remember him turning up on TV’s Record Breakers, showing off the burns on his ranger’s hat.
He told his a Florida tabloid, the Lakeland Ledger that he would lie down on the back seat of his truck if a storm came over and kept a big bottle of water on the back seat, just in case he needed to put out a fire.
The fifth time lightning struck Roy it set his hair alight, so carrying that water around turned out to be a wise move. His final strike happened on a fishing trip. Hit directly on the head, he leapt up and ran for his truck, to find a grizzly bear eager to pinch his trout.
Some might think Sullivan was lucky to survive so many strikes, but nature’s determination to take his life had a psychological toll – and he ended his own life in 1983, just six years after retiring.
So – though lightning is very burny and deadly, it is possible to survive it. It’s very possible to survive it, around because 1 in 5 people do. Still, of those survivors, around 70% will have to live with injury or trauma for much the rest of their lives. How do you stack the odds in your favour?
Survive a Lightning Strike
Don’t stand out in the open
Lightning “finds” the tallest conductive object and completes its journey from cloud to the ground through it. If you’re standing out in the middle of a field when a storm hits, that could be you. If you can’t get indoors, shelter in an area with low tree cover – away from taller trees and obvious conductive objects like flagpoles, telegraph poles and tall buildings.
Ditch your umbrella
Conductive objects like golf clubs and umbrellas are asking for trouble. Stop playing and head for the clubhouse unless you want to be fried from the inside like a microwave burrito. Put your umbrella down and accept that you’re going to get wet.
Wear rubber wellies
Lightning doesn’t strike randomly from the sky, it meets “strike leaders” of electrical charge from the ground. That’s one of the reasons it tends to strike tall, conductive objects. When people are struck by lightning, the initial charge is conducted through them. If you’re wearing rubber boots, that massively reduces the chance of a direct hit – because rubber’s non-conductive and the strike leader won’t be able to climb up through your body…
Find out how close it is
A better indicator that lightning is going to come near you is to count the seconds between a distant lightning strike and the explosion of thunder that follows. Sound travels at, roughly, 1 mile every 5 seconds. So, if you get to 10 seconds you know the lightning’s 2 miles away. Count again the next time there’s lightning and you’ll be able to tell whether it’s coming towards you or moving away…
Learn to spot the signs
If a strike is imminent, there are some signs to look out for. Poor old Roy Sullivan claimed that he could smell lightning before it struck him. It smelled like sulphur. You’ll feel tingly and your hair will stand on end too. That’s because the charge from the ground is rising up through you. If this happens there’s only one thing you can do…
Make Yourself Small
Drop into a crouch, hands on your head and feet together. Raise yourself up on your toes. If you’re struck, this’ll give the lightning the smallest possible exit route to the ground and will hopefully minimise the damage that it causes.
Be female and over 35
Oddly enough, 85% of people struck by lightning tend to be people under 35. Another stunning statistic; 82% are men. Could this be due to some strange chemical imbalance peculiar to young men? Nope, says the US National Weather Service. It’s just that young men are less likely to heed the warning signs and will blithely carry on what they were doing before the storm hit. Over half of lightning strikes occur while the victims (men) are playing sports or engaged in outdoor recreation.
Oh – and by the way? This is fake: