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Lightning Safety: One Story That’ll Make You Shudder

Photo credit: Flickr/Ed Ouimette

We’re quickly approaching the end of severe weather season in much of the country, but an important story I heard today from a friend about lightning safety compelled me to broach the topic here on the unofficial end of summer.

A good friend of mine went hiking on Sunday morning, and just as she was about to reach the top, an unexpected wind and ice storm struck her as she was a few hundred feet from the top of a Colorado mountain. While she was ok, my friend told me it was a scary experience, with her hiking party worried that they might be hit by lightning. I told her that summiting a mountain is one of the worst places to be in a storm. She and another friend both told me today that they felt lightning safety, particularly while hiking, hadn’t been publicized enough. So, here we are.

A quick synopsis of the science behind lightning: lightning is formed as the result of the bottom of a cloud’s charge differential between it and the top of a cloud and and the ground (again, speaking rather broadly). Since lightning is simply trying to neutralize charge differences, it will attach to the highest point on the ground. While hiking, particularly above treelines, you are especially exposed. In fact, hiking above a treeline (and frankly, hiking in general) is one of the most dangerous places you can be during a thunderstorm.

It’s something I’ve seen myself; in June 2013, an unexpected storm developed just as I was preparing to summit a Mount Bierstadt, a “14er” (14,000’+ peak), leading to panic and pandemonium from my friends and fellow hikers. Golf ball-sized hail pelted us and lightning flashed all around, and while we were fortunate to escape unscathed, the actions of everyone around me led me to believe people really don’t know what to do in a storm in a location. As I mentioned before, the best thing you can do – rather than sprint towards the far-away treeline- is to hunker down as low as possible and simply ride the storm out that way. With the treeline thousands of feet below, sprinting downhill only puts you in an exposed position (lightning will strike the highest point in a given area) unless, of course, you can get there in a short amount of time.

If you’re hiking, make sure you check the forecast. Go as early as possible – often before noon – to reduce the chance of getting hit by a more-likely afternoon storm. And if you’re caught in a freak storm, as I was last summer, hunker down and get as low as possible.

A teenage boy was killed by lightning while swimming in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on Sunday, making him the 21st lightning fatality of 2014. It’s another reminder to “hear indoors when thunder roars”, even with summer beginning to wind down.

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi

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