By Frank Ross
Fishing in open water can be very dangerous when a storm starts to build. Watch for storms building quickly and head for safety before that first bolt of lightning. Photo by Frank Ross
When reviewing the statistics accumulated from incidents where humans have posed as lightning rods, one might consider these massive charges of electricity are out to get even with men for some unknown offense, or perhaps lightning is attracted to hairy bodies filled with testosterone. The fact of the matter is men are more likely to be found outdoors in their work and play. While women of this generation are more prevalent in the various jobs that require outdoor “offices”, the majority of professions performed outdoors are staffed by men. As well, there are many ladies who play golf or tennis and enjoy a day on the water fishing or boating, but again, it is men that are the predominate species that spend an inordinate amount of time flailing the air with clubs that have metallic shafts, or bobbing in boats with long rods sticking up in the air.
It is also men, in my personal experience, that are more inclined to think of themselves as somewhat immune to the things that might define them as mortal. Men are more likely to say, “Let’s just finish out this hole and we’ll head in to the clubhouse.” Or, “I’ve got a feeling that big snook will not be able to resist this next cast.” It’s just what men do, and as difficult as it is for ladies to understand us, it’s the nature of the beast.
Ronald L. Holle and Raúl E. López of the National Severe Storms Laboratory and E. Brian Curran of the National Weather Service conducted a study of human interaction with lightning, and between the years 1959 and 1994, men accounted for 84% of lightning fatalities and 82% of injuries.
Fortunately for the wives and families of men, the number of deaths and serious injuries from lightning strikes has diminished over the past 35 years. This study notes 30 percent of the decrease in lightning deaths to improved forecasts and warnings as well as better lightning awareness. More substantial lightning protected or lightning resistant buildings also are a key factor. An additional 40 percent of improvement in this mortality rate is credited to improved medical care as well as communications.
Today, first responders arrive on scene with an elevated ability to treat patients suffering from lightning strikes, and the level of in-the-field trauma care has improved significantly. When you factor in access to medivac helicopters, which are able to shorten the time from impact to intensive care, the potential for a positive outcome from a lightning encounter have improved significantly.
Between 1959 and 1994, the National Weather Service publication Storm Data recorded 3,239 deaths and 9,818 injuries from lightning strikes. In the realm of weather-related deaths, only flash floods and river floods cause more loss of life. Statistically, 20 percent of lightning victims never knew what hit them; they were dead when they hit the ground. The challenge comes for those 80% who survive. Doctors do not understand fully how to treat the myriad injuries that are produced by this brief visitation of excessive voltage and heat.
Since lightning victims are fairly rare, and those that survive are challenged with a wide variety of symptoms, the medical field is wanting for specialists to treat these maladies.
After a storm has apparently passed is one of the most dangerous times. Just because the rain isn't overhead, doesn't mean that the potential for a lightning strike has passed. Photo by Frank Ross
Treatment of electrical shocks experienced by workers coming into contact with high voltage in industrial accidents are far more common, and most doctors are more familiar with the diagnosis and treatment of these types of injuries. Although similar in nature, the intensity of lightning damage from industrial accidents pales in comparison to lightning. The voltages and amps involved are so much greater and the length of time the electricity is passing through the victim is much greater. Due to modern circuit breakers, industrial shocks rarely last longer than a half second. Lightning strikes are much shorter in duration and most of the current passes over the outer surface of the body in a process called external flashover. Were it not for this curious behavior there would be few survivors of lightning strikes.
Both of these high-voltage encounters result in deep burns at point of contact. In industry accidents the points of contact the upper limbs, hands and wrists are the most often affected entry points. With lightning injuries are mostly focused on the head, neck and shoulders. Sometimes industrial shock victims exhibit deep tissue destruction along the entire current path, while the majority of burns to lightning victims seem to be focus on the entry and exit points. Both types of victims may are often subject to injury from being thrown or falling down, but the leading cause of immediate death for both types of incidents is cardiac or cardiopulmonary arrest.
You might feel lucky to survive, and indeed life with complications is far better than the alternative, but if you survive a shock, the consequences of the electrical burns can be severe and debilitating for a long time. Severe hock and the resulting burns often lead to kidney failure, infection, muscle and tissue damage, and in severe cases amputation of the affected limb or limbs is required. Lightning burns are exceptionally life threatening.
Lightning medical expert, Dr. Elisabeth Gourbière of the Electricité de France notes that 70 percent of lightning survivors experience residual effects. The most common affect the brain, which operates on tiny electrical impulses. Unfortunately, these medical effects can develop slowly, only becoming apparent much later after the electrical shock/lightning strike and are often misdiagnosed because of the time delay.
Do you feel lucky?
Should you feel particularly invincible, and want to test the medical preparedness of your community hospital, schedule your summer golf games for around 4 in the afternoon, and ignore the daily gathering of thunderheads. July is statistically the most productive month for lightning activity, but especially in Florida. If you want to be put directly into the bonus round, time your golf game for Sunday. Sunday has 24% more deaths than other days, followed by Wednesday. Nationally, most lightning casualties occur in the afternoon, with two-thirds between falling between noon and 4 p.m.
This statistical spike should not be surprising to anyone living in Florida to find out that this state enjoys twice as many lightning casualties (deaths and injuries combined) as any other state in the union. This is most likely caused by two factors. The first is the fact that the state is a peninsula of land jutting into sub-tropical waters that produce massive thunderstorms on a daily basis. Second and perhaps not so obvious, the state is covered with golf courses and tennis courts, encircled and dotted with water filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft.
While Florida may record twice the number of human interaction with lightning, don’t breathe that sigh of relief too soon. Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Texas are the next most likely places for candidates to win the lightning lottery.
The commonality of both golf and boating is wide open spaces and the tallest object generally being human. If you were to pick the absolute worst place to be during a storm, it would be walking in an open field or swimming in open water. Other bad practices would be standing in an open area with a long metal rod in your hand, like a golf club, umbrella, fishing rod or anything that contains a metallic component.
Seek shelter, quickly, don’t wait
While some storms don't require a lot of prompting to get people to move to safety. It's the more subtle storms that are dangerously deceptive. Photo by Frank Ross
When you’re participating in outdoor sports, or working in your daily job, the critical thing to remember is when you hear thunder, you are already within the range of where the next ground flash may occur. Studies have concluded that there is no safe time between that first strike of lightning and the next, for seeking shelter. The timing for subsequent strikes can be minutes, seconds or fractions of seconds. This study determined that most of the intervals between lightning strikes, in an circle of 1,640 feet, the range varied from 0 to 600 seconds, and the maximum frequency was a scant 40 seconds.
While this may seem like a no-win situation, you can stack the deck in your favor. First and foremost, seek shelter when you hear even the faintest peel of thunder. The best options for shelter would include enclosed buildings or cars or enclosed vehicles. Just remember that when you’re in a vehicle, don’t touch metal surfaces. A vehicle may have rubber tires, but that is no guarantee against a close strike. If no safe shelter can be reached quickly, and the storm is closing fast, you want to minimize your profile as much as possible. Bend down into a crouching position and rise up on the balls of your feet to reduce the amount of contact with the ground as possible. If you feel the hair on the back of your neck or your arms stand up, the area you are in is building up for a strike.
Avoid isolated trees, and open structures such as telephone booths, gazebos or porches. These types of structures make poor lightning shelters. If you find yourself in the area of a tall object such as a power pole, antenna, or large tree, move as far away as possible. Such locations make you vulnerable to secondary discharges coming off those objects.
More to come . . .