Each year, lighting strikes about 1.4 billion times around the world—that’s 44 times every second. Twenty-five million of those strikes land in the U.S., resulting in an average of about 47 deaths a year (hundreds more are injured).
That’s a pretty low death/strike ratio, but lightning remains one of planet’s deadliest weather events. So I called up three of our nation’s foremost experts to find out how to stay alive in a storm.
Check the weather. Seriously.
The easiest way to avoid death by lighting? Stay away from the stuff.
“Check the forecast,” says John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service. “Know what you might be getting into. Check the radar. Don’t be caught in a situation that is or can become dangerous.”
Develop an understanding of the local weather and plan accordingly. If storms are in the forecast, re-evaluate your need to go out at all.
Take shelter early
Deadly lightning strikes aren’t always produced by big, intimidating storms.
“A lot of storms that cause casualties don’t produce much lighting,” says Steve Hodanish, a senior meteorologist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. “A flash here or there, but not big storms with lightning all over the place. Many injuries come from the first flash of the storm, when it might not be raining much, if at all.”
As a result, Hodanish says, many of the people killed or injured by lightning each year are found near safe shelter. Don’t be cavalier—seek shelter as soon as the weather looks threatening.
Choose your shelter carefully
In a lightning storm, your best shelter is a building with a lot of plumbing and electrical wiring. This doesn’t include rain or picnic shelters—lightning can strike you through these or can hit the shelter and then spread along the ground beneath it.
A car can also serve as a safe shelter, but only with the windows rolled up. If it gets hot and stuffy start the engine and run the air conditioning.
Never, seek shelter under a tree, cautions Jennifer Hillmann of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Of the 38 U.S. deaths from lightning strikes in 2016, seven were people who took cover under a tree.
Strikes often hit tall objects, but not always. Once it hits the ground, it spreads out along the ground surface, where it can still kill or injure. In fact, most people aren’t struck directly but are exposed to ground current.
If you’re out and a storm is approaching with no shelter nearby, avoid ridgelines and open areas as well as tall, isolated objects (like trees). If you’re camping in the back country, Hillmann advises, set your tent up in a low-lying area away from isolated trees, but not in a place where there’s a flash flooding risk.