The Science of Survival: Lightning Strike

Explaining four of the most common threats in the outdoors

Lightning strikes.     Photo: John Fowler/Flickr

If you can hear thunder, you should be running.

It sounds like an outrageous way to go, but lightning kills with regularity. In fact, over the last 30 years, lightning injuries have trailed behind only flash floods and tornadoes as the leading cause of storm-related deaths in the U.S. Worried about hurricanes, super-volcanoes, or earthquakes? Lightning kills more people each year than all of those threats combined, according to the National Weather Service.

The good news? Ninety percent of lightning strike victims survive, though your chances depend on the kind of strike. Direct hits are, predictably, pretty fatal. But contact (when the victim is touching an object that was struck), side splash (where the current jumps to the victim from a nearby object), and ground strikes (where the current travels through the ground) are survivable.

WHAT HAPPENS: “You’re in a channel,” says Dr. Katie Walsh, an expert on lightning and director of East Carolina University’s athletic training program. “A charge comes up from the ground and down from the sky at the same time. Anything that’s in its path it will go through. Typically, your heart stops. Then you stop breathing. If your heart doesn’t stop, you feel this big giant buzz.” And if you survive, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear. “It’s almost like the concussions where people don’t ever really feel 100 percent again—your brain changes or you have neurological tingling or don’t sleep well,” says Walsh. “Your whole life is changed. The majority struggle. They’re short-circuited.”

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Generally the symptoms of a lightning strike are pretty self-evident but they can be misleading. “We have found people naked and dead because they were sweating,” says Walsh. “They were hiking, lightning hit them and blew their clothing off. People think it’s an assault. It’s not.”

PREVENTION: Avoid water, open spaces, high ground, and solitary trees. Be proactive: “Don’t just check the weather, talk to a local who can say, be up by noon and back by two,” says Walsh. “A local will know that, say, around three every day a storm rolls in.” If you’re trapped in the storm, make your way to safety as quickly as possible. Your best bet is a building or car. Short of that, squatting in a densely forested area or hiding deep in a cave is best.

TREATMENT: If the victim's heart has stopped, perform CPR. If not, get them to the hospital.

THE MYTHS: Strike victims are dangerous to handle. If lightning hits the ground nearby, you’ll be safe. If you’re dry, you’re good.

THE REALITY: Strike victims are perfectly safe to touch. When lightning hits the ground, you’re not safe; it spreads out along the surface and can injure you if you’re close enough. And just because you’re dry (say, in a tent) doesn’t mean you’re safe. You need to be in a real building, with real plumbing, or a car.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Plan ahead, and “if you can hear thunder, you should be running,” says Walsh.

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