16 July 2010

Nine myths and facts about lightning

Scientists have been studying lightning for hundreds of years. Although they have a pretty good idea about what causes it, there is still more to learn about these mysterious sparks of electricity.
Given that summer is peak season for thunderstorms, it's probably a good idea to brush up on your lightning facts, particularly if you have some outdoor adventures planned.

Tornadoes and hurricanes are more dangerous than lightning
Myth: Lightning kills more people (about 58) each year than tornadoes or hurricanes. In fact, it is the most underrated weather hazard, according to the National Weather Service. Only floods are routinely responsible for more deaths than lightning.

You can get struck by lightning when you're inside
Fact: It's true that being inside a building when lightning strikes is your safest bet, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take some precautions.
If a building gets struck the electrical current will most likely travel through the wiring or plumbing before going into the ground. That's why you should stay off of corded phones (cellular and cordless are okay) and away from running water (so no showers or hand- or dish-washing). Don't use stoves, computers, or anything else that's connected to electricity. Here are some more indoor safety tips.

Lightning always takes down planes
Myth: The reality is that lightning regularly strikes airplanes, but rarely causes plane crashes. On average, each U.S. commercial plane gets hit at least once a year. Most airplanes are made of aluminum, a good conductor of electricity, and there are also strict lightning protection requirements for planes.

You need to unplug major electronics in a storm
Fact: Electrical surges generated from lightning can damage electronics even if your house isn't struck. Unplug your computer, television, and other electronics before a storm hits because you can't necessarily depend on a surge protector You can be struck if you try to unplug your gadgets during a storm.

You should avoid cars during a thunderstorm
Myth: Cars are actually one of the safest places you can be in during an electrical storm if you can't be inside a building. Just make sure you're in a car with a hard top. Golf carts and convertibles don't count.

Lightning never strikes twice
Myth: Lightning can hit the same spot more than once during a thunderstorm.

It's not safe to be outside during an electrical storm
Fact: If you're outside, then try to find a grounded building or car to take cover in. If you can't, then here are some tips to minimize your risk: Avoid open fields and tall isolated trees or other tall objects. Stay away from water. Don't lie down on the ground.

You should stay indoors until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder
Fact: Most people are not struck at the height of a thunderstorm, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from where it is raining, but if you can hear thunder you are within striking distance.
The NWS suggests following this advice: "When thunder roars, go indoors and stay there until 30 minutes after the last cap of thunder."

You can tell the distance of a storm by counting
Fact: Surprisingly, that old childhood trick you learned is based on fact, not fiction. Light travels faster than sound so lightning is seen before thunder is heard.
Here's how it works according to the Federal Emergency Mnagement of website: "You can estimate how many miles away a storm is by counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the clap of thunder. Divide the number of seconds by five to get the distance in miles."

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