How to avoid getting zapped.
Tagged: weather lightening safety storms
Awright, I mostly made it through my first winter of commuting thanks in no small measure to some good advice from this message board. I can stay warm and dry for the most part.
Now, I’m wondering how to make the call when it comes to electric storms? I don’t mind rain but I don’t want to get struck by a bolt of lightning. How do you decide when to take shelter or avoid going out altogether?
I see the little lightning bolt icons @ weather.com & get a little nervous.
The odds of that happening are incredibly low. Lightening is going to try and strike the tallest (or one of the taller) things around you. Around here, and when you’re on the road, there are a lot better choices.
I’d be more worried about the danger from drivers in heavy rain.
I’ve only ever taken shelter when a micro burst was coming right at me (the rain was unridable) and when I was MTBing and lightening was striking within 1/10th of a mile of my position. (I was worried about a tree getting downed on me)
I wonder what the statistics of getting struck while riding a bicycle are. I think I remember the chances of getting struck by lightening while walking was less than the chance of getting crushed by a vending machine.
Just keep saying to yourself…”Don’t tase me, bro! Don’t tase me!”
OK, thanks. I’ll take comfort in being short. The NOAA site says it’s not metal that attracts the bolts, but height & isolation of objects – that’s why taking shelter under a tree is not such a good idea. @greasefoot – lol!
Good to know, I drove today because of the thunderstorms, but not the rain.
Its not actually the tallest thing the lightning will go for – but what has the highest ‘streamer’ of ions coming off of it. If you were to take a toothpick and place it next to a nail of equal size, if you could visualize the ion streamer, both of the objects will have one but the one for the nail will be significantly taller – so more likely to be struck.
In our case, the rubber of your tires will insulate you from the ground and you should be fine unless you’re absolutely soaked to the bone with rain, in which case you and your bike become one giant conductor.
Also to be considered, a steel bike will have a bigger ‘streamer’ than an aluminum bike, which would be bigger than a carbon bike, and so on.
If you’re riding around downtown, you’ll be fine, if you’re riding in the middle of a street in a suburban neighborhood, you’re as much of a target as wrought iron mailbox.
Still, the likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1/750000.
@robjdlc: excellent! I appreciate the bonus of having one more reason NOT to live in the suburbs
Isn’t aluminum a better electrical conductor than steel? Or is there some other chemical property that goes into being an “ion streamer”?
I rode toward the storm today, and was a little nervous.
Thanks Greasefoot…”Don’t tase me, bro! Don’t tase me!” – Will be my new chant!
+1 on the encouragement! I was beginning to think I made a mistake using tonight as my time to do some major catchup at work.
dwillen – you’re correct, I had it backwards. Aluminum has 3 times less the resistivity of iron/steel, and a higher conductivity. For bikes though, its usually a steel alloy, so all the other nonsense applies and a carbon bike is still an insulator.
Actually rob, cf is an excellent conductor, especially so at extremely high voltages, such as lightning. This is why it’s being used for hv transmission lines in Germany now, and marine specs require special insulation from lightning strikes: the result of one is catastrophic.
You just blew my mind, graphite is the killer.
/off to buy a wooden bike.
Wooden bike probably won’t help. If lightning wants you, she’ll have you. I won’t trade my two meter fly rods for bamboo or ash (spey). Granted, when my brother’s hair went up on a mountaintop while we fished for brookies we both threw our rods one way and ourselves the other, and the struck tree didn’t fall on us, but that’s a small price to pay for graphite’s utility.
re: OP’s question.
If you want to be absolutely safe, the NWS recommends the 30/30 rule. Go inside a safe structure if you hear thunder within 30 seconds of a lighting flash and stay inside until 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning.
Safe structure = totally enclosed building with plumbing and electrical or a hard top vehicle.
That said, I wasn’t overly concerned when lighting was flashing over my head while riding through Bloomfield the other day. As others have pointed out, it’s more likely that buildings / utility poles will get struck first. It all comes down to how much risk you are willing to put up with.
I had a professor who was struck by lightning while climbing a mountain, he was only briefly phased, and continued to the top.
I always imagined that I would be hit by lightnisng and gain mastery and bliss.
Winning the cosmic lottery as it were.
And yeah, I know how unrealistic this is. I dont’ hang out on hilltops in thunderstorms.
My one experience in riding during a thunderstorm was my first trip from Pittsburgh to DC in June 2008. My riding companion and I were advised “don’t get caught on the high ridges during a thunderstorm.” So naturally we got caught by a thunderstorm between Meyersdale and the Eastern Continental Divide. As we rode in the downpour I kept scanning the trailside for a ditch we could duck into if we needed to…..
my great aunt Violet was killed by a lightening strike, it hit her through an open window while combing her hair with a treasured silver comb. Family conclusion? God struck her down for her vanity (and for never marrying or installing indoor plumbing). My dad likes to tell this story when I discuss my desire to lop off and donate my hair. We have good family stories.
(for clarity, she was combin her own hair, the lightening was not operating the comb for her – can’t reword that properly right now)
“My great-aunt Violet was killed by a lightning strike. It hit her through an open window. She was combing her hair with a treasured silver comb.”
“My great-aunt Violet was killed by a lightning strike. She was combing her hair with a treasured silver comb by an open window.”
To the OP: Best strategy; get inside a metal cage (like a bus shelter) when electrical activity is most intense. Fallback position; make sure you don’t fall if you are struck. Much injury from lightning comes from the fall after the strike. (I’ve no source for this assertion.)
I’ve worked with (extremely) high voltage (AC) electricity for around 30 years. Suffered a hit about 29 years ago, 200kv fortunately at only 30 amps and even more fortunately, it stayed on one side of my body. Most excruciating pain I have ever experienced. (Most lightning victims are knocked unconscious. I was not so lucky.) Then, of course, I moved to a small island in the middle of the squall prone Chesapeake Bay. And switched from bamboo and fiberglass to carbon fiber graphite fly rods, while standing in a small aluminum jon boat. My dock was hit almost weekly. Three times during one hurricane.
Here’s some of what is known about lightning and humans. If you are struck and survive, your odds of getting hit again rise ridiculously, to the extent that it’s almost not silly to say; you will probably get hit again. Seriously. It’s a curious phenomena, and no credible theory has been advanced as to why this is so.
If you can’t take shelter in a metal (Faraday) cage, standing in the open is not advised, nor is standing near trees. Crouching among shrubs or lying in a gully doesn’t work either. (A couple at a marina near where I lived at the time tried laying down in a ditch among shrubbery, and were fused together. Icky. She died too, after a few days.) With all those masts, one would have thought lightning would have originated from them? For the most part, lightning starts from a ground source and discharges upwards. (“Positive lightning makes up less than 5% of all lightning.” http://www.electricalfun.com/lightning.htm) So, resting on an insulator might afford some protection. Remember, most injury results from the victim’s fall, so sit or at least crouch.
And no smoking. The Navy did some model rocket launches near my residence and discovered the rocket’s exhaust cut a conductive path for lightning through our normally insulating atmosphere. They were using rockets with long wires unspooling beneath them to attract strikes, and when one wire broke, found rockets without wires worked just as well. So, if you want a real bang up 4th of July, launch a rocket into a t-storm. I’ve done it (from a distance) and it works.
Of all of nature’s spectacles, lightning is the one I’ll anthropomorphize. I have my doubts about hurricanes and tornadoes, and for good reason: hurricanes “seem” to be drawn to me, and I know a guy who “appears” to attract tornadoes. Lightning, however, is idiosyncratic, capricious, and can strike from a clear blue sky, much like love. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2683/have-people-actually-survived-being-hit-by-lightning-multiple-times http://www.uic.edu/labs/lightninginjury/ltnfacts.htm
Though PA is one of the top ten States in lightning causalities, perhaps you’ll find solace that “Men are struck by lightning four times more often than women”? http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/1999/essd18jun99_1/
Fretting doesn’t help too much, but having a plan may. Hope this is helpful.
Of note, though the literature describes “…injuries to postal and construction workers and persons using telephones that have not been properly grounded. The numbers of farmers injured has decreased farmers to work larger fields in better-protected vehicles. Injuries during recreation have increased. They occur to joggers, hikers, and campers, as well as golfers. In addition, a significant number of people are injured while participating in team sports…”, there’s scant, if any mention, of lightning striking wheelmen or wheelwomen. (http://www.uic.edu/labs/lightninginjury/ltnfacts.htm)
One incident is rather interesting: “The most well-known death during the spate of Franklin imitators was that of Professor Georg Richmann, of Saint Petersburg, Russia. He had created a set-up similar to Franklin’s, and was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder. He ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. While the experiment was underway, a large ball lightning showed up, collided with Richmann’s head, and killed him, leaving a red spot. His shoes were blown open, parts of his clothes singed, the engraver knocked out, the doorframe of the room split, and the door itself torn off its hinges.” http://www.electricalfun.com/lightning.htm
Notice the Professor was afoot. Had he been biking, he may well have survived!
as fungicyclist said, if lightning wants you, it’ll get you. sure, it will aim for the best “ion streamer”, as rob says, but will also aim for proximity (as he didn’t say). but just because lightning struck something else doesn’t mean you’re, heh, out of the woods. i have a friend who was struck by lightning, after a fashion. it hit a tree he was standing near, then went up and out the tree he was standing next to, knocking him out, and burning the hell out of his arm, which was touching the tree.
in other words, if you’re near the high thing that the bolt prefers, it might prefer to exit the ground out of you. or it might not. but it’s all more or less arbitrary, once you consider all the factors involved. if you can see the bolts actually hitting things, seek cover immediately, and don’t come out until the thunderclaps aren’t deafening.
all that said, as mayhew says, being even moderately adversely affected by a bolt of lightning is exceedingly unlikely, to the point that you could ride across a featureless plain during a thunderstorm and have a better chance of winning the lottery than being hit. well, a lottery, anyway.
“The odds of an average person living in the USA being struck by lightning once in his lifetime has been estimated to be 1:3000.” http://www.electricalfun.com/lightning.htm
Though I can’t verify this figure, it appears one enjoys a much better chance of being a conductor of lightning then winning any lottery?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?
In the most terrible and nimble stroke
Of quick, cross lightning?
(Wm. Shakespeare, “King Lear”, Act 4, Scene 7)
Shakespeare is not known to have ridden a bicycle, and Lear most certainly did not.
oh, and i ought to mention that air is, for our purposes, every bit as good an insulator as rubber, and the distance from the ground to you on a bike is easily traversed by even the smallest shocks. those rubber tires really don’t provide you any protection.
and contrary to popular belief, cars don’t offer protection because of their rubber tires. they do, however, offer protection because they act as faraday cages, and the charge of the bolt aggregates around the outside of the cage, leaving the interior fairly safe.
HV, you are only “partially” correct: “Electrically speaking, at lightning’s higher frequencies, currents are carried mostly on the outside of conducting objects. A thick copper wire or a hollow-wall metal pipe will carry most of the lightning on outer surfaces. This phenomenon is called “skin effect.” The same holds true for lightning when it strikes metal vehicles: the outer surface carries most of the electricity. The persons inside this steel box can be likened to (being) protected by a partial Faraday cage.
But, consistent with lightning’s capricious nature, situations alter results. Is the car dry or wet? If the car is made of fiberglass (a poor conductor) or a convertible, skin effect principles may not work. (Corvette and Saturn owners, please note this fact.)” http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_pls/vehicle_strike.html
A take away from this is what I practice stream side on mountains or on the plains. I immerse myself in the nearby water or douse myself with what water I have on hand, and crouch (away from the water source). I’m told I’m quite the shivering bedraggled sight, but anyone who’s been with me has followed suit as the storm nears. (I always carry dry clothes on adventures, for this or other occurrences.)
So far, so good.
Somewhere along the line, I learned that if you have to crouch on the ground when your hair goes on end, to only let your knees and toes touch, not your hands or body, but bend over as much as possible. Reason: When the zap comes, and assuming you do not take a direct hit, your brain, heart and spinal column are farthest from the electrified ground when only your toes and knees are touching.
Have to call you on your approach and reasoning, sorry. A static charge presents no issue until it discharges through or around a human body. One can stand sit, kneel, recline or contort themselves however on a charged plate with no consequence save a tingling sensation and wild hair. (If you have a pacemaker, all bets are off.)
Should that charge discharge, however, your body configuration has just supplied two additional uninsulated contact points by means of your knees. Iron rich blood is an adequate conductor, as is thigh bone marrow. Unless you are wearing kneepads, you might as well have put down your hands. If the lightning follows the “skin” path, as it is wont to do, then either it makes no difference, or you’ve just put your actual skin, only thinly veiled by (wet) fabric, in contact with the building ground charge and increased your chances of being used by lightning to get where it wants to go.
I crouch, or perhaps more precisely, squat, with my arms across my thighs, on the flats of both (insulated) feet. I sometimes perch on a rock for hours motionlessly watching a trout. I realize most probably would find this uncomfortable. I blame Quantico for my completely useless stupid human trick.
A better approach (for those who haven’t used the indigenous toilet facilities of SE Asia) might be to squat using a piece of barkless wood to effect a tripod with both feet flat and the pointy stripped stick?
Based on this “ion stream” concept, it seems like running would be a better plan than crouching, at least if you weren’t in a good shelter already. It would thin out these ions, making a less desirable electrical route. But I’m making that up. At least you’re not crouching there making a nice steady ion stream.
Seems like the best thing of all would be to carry a carbon fiber fly rod, jam it in the ground, and run away.
Wow, thanks fungicyclist!
Very interesting & informative posts!
I got a brief but memorable jolt of household current when I was a kid, inserting an old-style appliance plug that didn’t have the flared plastic to prevent fingers from accidentally touching both prongs at once.
I have used the squat toilets, so thanks for that tip: I understand what you mean.
@fungicyclist, I too have fished in many electrical storms. I’m usually more worried about a tree falling on me than I am about the lightning.
This truck was TWO parking spots from my friends truck
My friends truck
That is scary! I can only imagine how much fun that was to work out with insurance & roadside assistance.
My understanding is that lightning can travel from the ground to the sky just as easy as it can strike from the sky to the ground. It all depends on the conditions. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time there is no safe way to be standing or squatting.
Had you read the previous posts, you’d know 95% of lightning originates from the earth and travels upwards.
If Zeus or Hades wants you, you are toast, sure, but one can minimize the odds you’ll be in the gods line of fire.
this discussion is getting me stoked for the ride home tonight, let me tell ya.
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