Myths and Truths About Lightning

Tips and tricks to protect yourself when a storm thunders your way.


April 18, 2008 — -- That stunning flash and loud bang. Temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. For thousands of years, lightning has sparked our imagination.

The ancient Greeks dreamed of lightning bolts hurled by the mighty Zeus. Lightning gave life to Dr. Frankenstein's creation. And lightning fueled Marty McFly's time-traveling car in the movie "Back to the Future."

But myths about lightning aren't confined to science fiction or ancient mythology. As the modern day saying goes, "lightning never strikes twice."

"It can. It does," said Paul Williams. "And it happened to me."

Williams was 12 when he was first struck by lightning. He was camping with his Boy Scout troop when a thunderstorm blew through their campsite. He was in a tent with another camper when, "before we knew it we were kind of thrown onto the ground." Williams was lucky; the strike wasn't fatal.

"It didn't burn us," he said, "but it gave us kind of rubber legs. You couldn't stand up. It just kind of collapsed your legs."

He and his friends recovered quickly, but years later, lightning, it seemed, came looking for him again. He'd been sailing on the Potomac and had docked in calm weather at a friend's house.

"All of a sudden a wind picked up. We were on the porch. And we saw the boat starting to rock. So we knew we had to come down and tie it down," Williams said. "We did not see any lightning or thunder, or we wouldn't have run out there. And it was literally the first bolt that came out of the sky happened to land right between us."

For the second time in his life, Williams was struck by lightning. He blacked out and fell on his back.

"I woke up and all I could see was a gray sky," Williams said, "and it had knocked out my hearing. So everything was completely silent. And I didn't have any feeling in my body. I didn't know what to think. I really didn't know if I was alive or dead."

Williams' friends carried him, dazed, inside the house.

"I couldn't talk," he said. "For several seconds, all the way from the dock into the house, I just kind of was like a rag doll."

His hearing came back but he had blistering burns from his legs to his shoulders. He continues to suffer problems with his short-term memory.

"I have to keep my wallet and my keys in the exact same place or I'll have no idea where they are," he said.

He still keeps the tattered swimming trunks he was wearing when he was struck. He said they are "literally in shreds … as though a bear claw had taken its swipe right across the front."

It's merely bad luck that lightning struck Williams twice, but it's no coincidence that tall structures get struck all the time. That's because taller objects provide the shortest path from the cloud to the ground. So lightning does strike the same place twice. In fact, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times a year.

And there's more bad news for men like Williams: Lightning strikes men four times more often than women. This isn't because men actually attract the lightning, but rather because men tend to spend more time outdoors than women do.

Nationwide, lightning kills about 100 people every year, but it kills more people in Florida than any other state because of the state's frequent thunderstorms. That makes it the perfect place for scientists like Martin Uman to study 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Remember, if you're caught in a storm, the safest place to be is inside a building, but be sure to avoid using any plumbing or plugged-in appliances. If you can't get inside, get in a car.

But the safest thing is not to get caught out in the storm in the first place. Take it from the guy who's been zapped. Twice.

"I keep my eye on the sky a lot," Williams said. "And if I hear thunder on the horizon, I … just head right inside. I make no apologies for it."

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