Myths and Truths About Lightning

There's not a myth about lightning that Uman hasn't heard, especially when it comes to protecting yourself. Should you stand on one foot? Should you lie flat on the ground? Should you run for the nearest tree?

Tip #1: Find Appropriate Shelter

According to Uman, your priority in a lightning storm should be to find shelter, preferably a structure with electrical wiring or, even better, a lightning rod.

The lightning bolt will be drawn to the rod or the metal wiring, and will then be conducted through the wiring into the ground, leaving the person inside the structure unscathed.

Tip #2: You're Safe in Your Home

So are you safest inside your home? Back in the days of candles and gaslights, that wasn't true because most houses were made of wood.

Lightning is drawn to the nearest metal object, so it would often strike people sleeping in their metal-framed beds.

Rest assured, this is no longer the case.

"It doesn't happen anymore because there's enough wiring in the roof of your house," Uman said.

The lightning gets to the wiring before it gets to where you are, and the powerful current is carried into the ground, he said.

Tip #3: Don't Hold a Corded Electronic Device

Lots of people still wonder, however, whether lightning will be more likely to hurt them if they're on the telephone, listening to the radio or watching television during a storm.

"If the telephone doesn't have any wires, it's a portable phone, it's OK," Uman said. "Watching the TV is always OK."

Don't hold on to a corded phone, however, or an appliance plugged into an outlet, because those pose a risk. If lightning strikes, the current could carry through those appliances, he said.

Tip #4: Find a Metal Car and Get Inside

For the most part, buildings are the safest place to be, but what if you can't make your way indoors? According to Uman, you should try to find a metal car and get inside. Inside the car, you're surrounded by a closed metal circuit. Should lightning strike the car, most of the current will travel through the metal frame of the car, leaving you safe inside. CLICK HERE to read myths about driving during bad weather.

Tip #5: Avoid Open Spaces

But what if you're caught in a thunderstorm in the middle of a field, and a building or a car is just too far away? Does it help to squat on one leg?

"Squatting on one leg is certainly safer for ground currents," Uman said, because it prevents them from finding a path through your body. If lightning strikes nearby and you have two feet on the ground, spread apart, rather than held firmly together, "then the lightning is liable to go up one leg and down the other. … The current will go through your body and maybe through your heart and that's dangerous."

"But if your number is up for that location on the field then it won't matter on one leg [or two]," Uman said. Neither stance will help if the lightning strikes you directly. "So the best thing is to get off the field."

Tip #6: Avoid Tall Trees

And if you run into a forest? Surprisingly, you may be safe. That's if all of the trees are the same size. It's just as likely that lightning will hit one tree as another, so your odds of avoiding a strike are pretty good. But if you're under an isolated tree, or if one tree is taller than the others, all bets are off.

"You don't want to be under the tallest tree for sure, it's a better target for lightning," he said.

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