How to Avoid Being Struck by Lightning

A certain Rolf and I were discussing the effects of the aforementioned Lightning. We talked of Ball Lightning, St. Elmo’s Fire, and the eerie static feeling that victims notice before a strike. What would happen if you jumped at just the right moment, exactly as the lightning struck? I do remember that lightning travels up. Would it avoid you since you were in midair? Would it jump from the ground to your foot up through your nogin and into the sky? ZAP!

Santa Cruz

You can jump what, four feet or so? Well, that lighning bolt is travelling through about a mile of air, anyway… What’s an extra four feet to it? This is also why rubber tires or shoe soles don’t make any difference (a car is safe, but not because of the tires): Something as puny as that presents no barrier to a lightning bolt.

And of course, it isn’t even an extra four feet of air if you jump: You’re further from the ground, but that much closer to the cloud.

By the way, is this a comment on one of Cecil’s columns?

I’m unaware of any post like this on previous articles. I do, however, remember the amusing column about jumping in a falling elevator just before it hits (no it doesn’t help).

More thoughts: so lightning works by building up huge invisible segments of static electrical energy from a tempestuous cloud, one on top of another, until a segment touches the ground, and zap, the current runs up from the ground through all the vertical segments to the cloud of origin. In so zapping, the air becomes illuminated as electricity passes through it, causing its electron configurations to go crazy and release excess energy in a whitish blue light. And of course the thunder is caused by the superheated gasses travelling way past the speed of sound.

So… I know this… this STUFF. It still doesn’t provide me with the insight… if you jumped at just the right time, could you avoid a lightning strike. How high would you have to jump?

Santa Cruz

Homer Simpson said “Grabbing the largest piece of sheet metal I could find I sought shelter under the largest tree.”

One can get out of the way of lightning, but jumping would seem to be singlularly ineffective. Like an 800 pound gorilla, lightning can go anywhere it chooses, but it generally travels more or less vertically, so jumping wouldn’t get you out of the way, and you would have to time your jump perfectly.

Out here in CO, lots of people get hit by lightning. If you are above tree level, and you feel any hair on your body rising up run down like hell. This is not perfect perfection, you may not feel anything, you may not move quickly enough, or you may choose a subotimal descent path. One poor man died this summer when he missed a turn on a trail while running from lightning and fell deveral hundred feet to his death.

Generally, you are better off squatting as low as you can, with your feet as close together as you can.

Or, try standing about 25 feet from Homer.

I’m no expert on the matter, but it seems to me that lightening will seek the lowest-resistance path, which is the ionized column of air. If you jump up, no matter how high, you could still end up being inside the column. If so, then you’re toast. A significant amount of electrical energy will pass through you just because you’re in the way.

Much better to leap horizontally and roll away. Or so I would imagine.

Oh, in that case, this is in the wrong forum. This forum, Comments on Cecil’s Columns, is for discussing things that Cecil has written about. We have another forum, General Questions, for factual questions (like this one) that Cecil hasn’t covered. Don’t sweat it; a lot of new folks make that mistake, and a moderator will be along soon enough to fix it.

Now, as for what you can do: Once you feel the tingle, you have very little time left. Unless you’re already on your way in the door, I doubt you would be able to make it to safety. The best you can do is to get down low, to hopefully discourage the bolt from going through you.

Now, one would think that would mean lying down flat. So why do you want to squat instead, like SlowMindThinking said? The answer is in something called ground lightning. Suppose that the lightning misses you, but it’s close. Points far from the lightning strike will stay at ground voltage, but near the point of strike, the voltage will temporarily be very high, with it falling off in between. If you’re lying down flat, then one end of you might be as much as five or six feet closer to the hit than your other end, which will result in a large voltage difference across your body. Which will, in turn, cause a current to flow through your body, which is bad.

So you compromise by squatting down low with your feet together. If your feet are close together, then they’ll be only inches from each other instead of feet, and the voltage difference between the parts of the ground you’re touching will be fairly small. But at the same time, crouching gets you down low (lower than standing, at least), so as to reduce the risk of a direct hit.

When I was much younger, I got sent to a summer camp, and we did a little hiking trip. We were sitting on a ledge up in the mountains, eating lunch. It was kind of stormy out, but no lightening, just some annoying drizzle the whole time.

Well, Suzie’s* hair started to stand on end. We all thought it was funny-looking, and giggled. “Hey,” I called to one of the guides, “look at Suzie’s hair!”

He glanced over and, being a smart young fellow, gaped at her for a second and then screamed “Run!!!” and proceeded to demonstrated. No more than 20 seconds later, we saw the lightning hit the ledge.

So no, you don’t have much time, but you may be able to get away before you get fried. I don’t personally think that having us all jump in place would have been better.

Never really thought how close that was until now. Sweet innocent childhood.

*Names have been changed to protect my spotty memory.