Atmosphere And Weather

Lightning Myths and Realities

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"Lightning Myths and Realities"
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According to the NOAA, lightning kills nearly 60 people every year (NOAA lightning stats). It's a deadly natural phenomenon, involving temperatures rivaling those on the surface of the sun. Though the physical properties are relatively well understood, many myths continue to persist. In this list, I'll cover some of the more well-known myths with the truth behind each.

"Lightning never strikes the same place twice."

This is probably the most well-known myth, but is clearly wrong. Lightning is a discharge of electricity and will often use the shortest path or be attracted to the best conductor. Many tall buildings are built to be excellent grounded conductors to dissipate lightning charges. That being said, many tall buildings like the Empire State Building are struck a few dozen times each year.

"Staying in your car is safe because the rubber tires are insulating."

While it is true that cars make you safe, it is not because of the rubber tires. In fact, it is the metal frame that contacts the electricity to the ground that makes you safe. Keep in mind that convertibles and motorcycles are dangerous in storms, even though they have rubber tires, because without the roof and frame, you are exposed to the lightning strike.

"Lightning always strikes the tallest object."

While tall objects tend to satisfy the charge dissipation event of lightning, it's not always true that lightning will choose the tallest point to strike. Lightning will always take the easiest path to travel, which usually involves the best available conductor. Tall points tend to be easy targets, but humans can serve as conductors as well in a storm. You cannot assume that you will not be struck by lightning if something tall is nearby.

"If the storm isn't overhead you are safe from lightning."

Just because you don't see storm clouds overhead does not mean you are safe from lightning. Strikes can occur miles from the storm itself and only need charged air particles to occur (those particles do not have to be contained in a cloud).

"Seek shelter under a tree to stay dry in a storm."

It is well known that this is a myth, but some still believe it. Trees can be struck by lightning and it would be extremely dangerous to be under one when a strike occurs.

If you are stuck outside in a storm, you should lie flat on the ground."

Ground currents can be very dangerous. Lying on the ground increases the risk of injury due to a ground current. The best advice is to quickly move to shelter.

Further Reading/References:

How Stuff Works: Lightning

National Weather Service: Myths about lightning Myths about lightning

National Weather Service: History and Mystery of Lightning

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