It’s hardly a shocker, but it’s true: lightning can be a killer.
With about 1,800 thunderstorms pounding Earth at any given moment, it means that lightning is striking somewhere about 50 times every second. And Houston still remains the lightning capital of Texas, averaging about 20 strikes per square mile and about 1,700 strikes just between June and August, says Richard Orville, an atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M University who has studied lightning for more than 30 years.
“Two things are required for lightning – heat and moisture – and Houston has plenty of both,” Orville explains.
“Houston gets its share of lightning strikes, but the state of Florida is a real center of lightning. It is surrounded on three sides by water and has plenty of heat, so lightning there is always a big concern.”
Since Texas also has plenty of heat and moisture, lightning can be a real problem, especially in the spring and summer when storms are at their peak.
In general, Orville explains, the best places to be if there is lightning present is indoors if possible, and that includes automobiles, which are safe places because the vehicle is grounded.
The worst places: anywhere out in the open, such as a golf course, large park or lake. “If you do get caught in a situation where lightning is near you, try to crouch down close to the ground, and always stay away from trees,” he notes.
Lightning and airplanes generally don’t conflict with each other, Orville says. Despite a recent crash of an airliner over the Atlantic Ocean that may have been hit by lightning, airplanes are considered safe places in a storm “because if they do get hit by lightning, the current goes along the sides of the aircraft.
“I was in an airplane a few years ago that was hit by lightning,” he recalls. “We were in the middle of a storm and there were flashes all around, and the pilot announced to the passengers, ‘We just got hit by lightning.’ But everyone was safe.
“Lightning hitting airplanes happens fairly frequently. What happens very rarely is when lightning directly results in the crash of an airplane. One of the last such known crashes occurred in 1963, but airplane makers have made some changes in design since then, such as making the metal on the wings thicker, and today it’s very rare if a plane crashes because of a lightning strike.”
Orville says storms can be deceiving – a storm that appears in the distance can still have lightning near you, he adds. “The general rule is to wait 30 minutes after a storm has passed. If you haven’t heard thunder in the last 30 minutes, it’s probably safe to go outside.”
Studies show that about 100 people are killed in the United States each year by lightning. Of those hit by lightning, 85 percent are under the age of 35 and of those, one out of five will die. Those who survive have about a 70 percent chance of suffering long-term serious side effects from a lightning strike.
“It is true that lightning can be a killer,” Orville says.
“But good common sense goes a long way. If you know to seek shelter, avoid tall trees and try to stay away from open areas, you should be fine."