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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 05/12/2010

A few words about lightning myths

By Don Lipman

Becoming warm & humid, chance of p.m. t'storms: Full Forecast *

Lightning behind the Lincoln Memorial. By CWG photographer Kevin Ambrose.

Now that spring is here, we're into the time of year when weather systems become more prone to thunderstorm development and occasional severe weather outbreaks. With thunderstorms, of course, come lightning and with lightning, myths abound. Just a few:

  • Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Probably the most famous and well known of all lightning myths. If anything, the opposite is true because lightning tends to favor certain objects by striking them over and over. New York's Empire State Building is struck, on average, 20 times a year.

Keep reading for more lightning myths...

  • Heat lightning is "false" lightning caused by the combination of high heat and humidity. What people refer to as "heat lightning" is just distant nighttime lightning associated with a far off, sometimes isolated storm that may avoid the observer. Also, the storm is often too far away for the thunder to be heard, since it's only audible up to a few miles away.
  • Rubber-soled shoes will protect one from being hit by lightning. The most powerful of lightning discharges can carry up to 1 billion volts, 250,000 amps, and be up to 50,000 degrees F hotter than the surface of the sun. It's unlikely that a pair of rubber-soled shoes would offer much protection against such awesome power.
Washington Monument surrounded by lightning. By CWG photographer Kevin Ambrose.
  • Rubber tires will protect a car's occupants. It's not the tires but the steel "cage" that (usually) channels the discharge through the tires and into the ground, shielding the occupants at the same time. Note: You risk electrocution if you get out of a car when "live" wires are touching it, because you'd be grounding the circuit.
  • The lightning rod, invented by Ben Franklin, attracts (or repels) lightning. According to the National Weather Service, lightning rods actually increase the chances of lightning hitting a structure by making it taller. But if connected to the ground through a copper cable or heavy gauge wire, a lightning rod will channel a lightning bolt harmlessly to the ground rather than to the structure.
  • Lightning isn't a hazard as long as it's not raining. Believe it or not, some people still believe this "old wives' tale" and others believe just the opposite, which is just as fallacious. Actually, the most dangerous parts of a storm are often the leading and trailing edges, where lightning has been known to strike up to 10 miles or more ahead of or to the rear of a storm. It's where the saying "a bolt out of the blue" originates. Forty-two years ago in Virginia Beach, Rebecca Godwin, age 14, daughter of (then) Virginia Governor Mills Godwin, was killed by lightning. She had just stepped out of the water onto the sand when she was struck "on a clear, sunny day with no storms around," it was said. We don't have any proof to the contrary, of course, but I suspect that an offshore storm, somewhat shielded by haze, may have been just close enough to cause this tragedy.
  • Lightning always hits the highest object. Although often true, this saying is wrong enough of the time that we can't count on it. Cloud-to-ground lightning, or any other kind of lightning (cloud-to-cloud, intra-cloud, cloud-to-air, etc.) takes the path of least resistance, so while it's best not to BE the tallest object around (such as being on the beach or in the water) it's also a good idea not to be NEAR the tallest object around (like a lone tree).

Some lightning facts:

  • Over recent decades, the average number of annual thunderstorm days in our area has been 35-40.
  • It's been estimated that as many as 2,400 thunderstorms are rumbling around the world at any one moment.
  • The "Lightning Crouch" is considered an option of last resort when it's impossible to move indoors. The position is meant to minimize both height and contact with the ground by crouching down on one's toes, while at the same time holding the hands over the ears (to protect the eardrums).

And finally, some lightning benefits: Lightning...

  • Ionizes the air, releasing nitrogen into rainwater for plant root growth. Although the atmosphere is approximately 78% nitrogen, atmospheric nitrogen normally can't be absorbed through plant leaves.
  • Helps balance Earth's heat budget and maintain its electrical balance.
  • Helps clear the forests of dead wood, making room for new seedlings.

What about you? Do you have any favorite lightning myths or some benefits that you'd like to share?

By Don Lipman  | May 12, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Lipman, Thunderstorms  
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Why are some people killed when struck by lightning while others are unhurt? I was at Delfest (bluegrass festival in cumberland md) last year and two people who were struck right near me were totally unhurt.

Posted by: blablabla | May 12, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Interesting... so the advice is to lie in a ditch during tornadoes, but use the lightning crouch during thunderstorms?

Posted by: spgass1 | May 12, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I remember as a child being told to stay off the phone during a thunderstorm... I assume that that doesn't apply to most phones these days, or was maybe just a ploy by my parents to get me off the phone? Also, isn't there something about not taking a bath during a thunderstorm? Thanks - this was an interesting read!

Posted by: MUrdanick | May 12, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

In the category of lightning benefits:

It’s been demonstrated that land-based, long-range lightning detection systems can provide estimates of rainfall rates over otherwise data sparse areas of the Pacific. Incorporating that information into the initial conditions of computer forecast models has the potential of increasing the accuracy of predictions downstream, including forecasting snowstorms affecting the eastern U.S.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | May 12, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Interesting facts. What about aluminum foil body suits (with attached hat of course).

Posted by: eric654 | May 12, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

blablabla: Lightning is very fickle and capricious and, as mentioned, usually takes the path of least resistance to the ground. Many factors (impedance, resistance, moisture level of the ground, etc.) could affect how it plays out in terms of injuries and/or death. For a scholarly treatment of this subject, I suggest referring to the following article, among others, for more information:

D. Lipman, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | May 12, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

MURDanick: Your parents were right

Posted by: spgass1 | May 12, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

About being on the phone during a thunderstorm- this of course only applies to wired land-line phones. A cell phone or cordless phone doesn't doesn't provide any special pathway from the lightning to you. But the danger from a wired phone also applies to other wired appliances; lightning can travel through house electrical wiring, too. I had a neighbor whose TV was fried after lightning struck the cable TV coax cable (we found it severed in the yard after the lightning strike). The danger is greater in rural areas, since a distant strike can travel a significant distance along a line; in the city it is more likely to find ground through a junction point first.

Posted by: CM_in_Fairfax | May 12, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Also- cool video about lightning research- they use model rockets to channel lightning to the ground...

Posted by: CM_in_Fairfax | May 12, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

What about being out in a wilderness area during a thunderstorm? Would it be better to be in a forest or to be out in an open field?

And, if it were available, wouldn't it be much safer to be near, but not touching, some high-tension power lines?

Posted by: whosywhat | May 12, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Another myth...heat lightning. No such thing. It's just lightning from a far-away storm that is over the horizon. Too far away to hear the thunder.

Posted by: dcawx | May 13, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse

Re: "near, but not touching, some high-tension power lines". A billion volts as they claimed in the article will ionize an awful lot of air space on it's path to ground. If you are going to do that, I would stay 50 feet away from the towers.

Posted by: eric654 | May 13, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Kevin, very nice pics... I have tried from time to time to get nice pics like that to no avail. I was inspired by a picture I saw years ago of a night time lightening strike that beautifully and earily lit up a tornado in the background...arguably the best weather picture I have ever seen.

Perhaps I will attempt again tomorrow...if the weather cooperates.

Posted by: amaranthpa | May 13, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

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