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Umbrellas: Safe in Lightning?

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If you are anything like most people, you will probably agree that getting caught out in a thunderstorm is not fun.

Umbrellas are not safe from lightning. Lightning will find the shortest path to the ground, so umbrellas can make you a target due to increasing your height. Umbrellas constructed from metal are also good conductors of electricity. Avoid high places during lightning storms to lessen the chance of being struck.

man holding umbrella in a storm
Brian Jackson@123rf.com

How Lightning Works

Lightning is a naturally occurring phenomenon wherein electrically charged particles located within a storm cloud react in the atmosphere to create what is known as a “lightning bolt.”

A lightning bolt is a potent manifestation of electric energy, which can be visibly observed. Lightning is always accompanied by thunder.

Positive and negatively charged ions in a thundercloud separate. Positively charged ions drift upwards within the cloud, and negatively charged ions settle near the bottom. When the cloud passes over a region of ground with a strong positive charge, the negative ions within the cloud and the positive ground charge can result in a lightning bolt.

The positive ground charge will travel through the tallest object in a given area to meet the cloud, as this is essentially the shortest distance between the two charges. This is why high places are hazardous during a lightning storm. This type of lightning strike is known as “cloud to ground.”

Lightning bolts can also form within the confines of a single storm cloud (intra-cloud lightning), or between two clouds (cloud-to-cloud lightning), as opposed to between the cloud and ground.

Conductive Materials

A commonly perpetuated myth about lightning strikes is that they are attracted to a person by items such as metal buttons, eyeglass frames, or earrings. 

The truth is that although metal is a conductive material lightning will not target small metal objects in preference to taller structures. It is not uncommon to see trees that have been struck by lightning.

Static Electricity: A Sign of a Highly Charged Atmosphere

The most prominent sign of a positively charged environment is the presence of static electricity. This may be indicated by the hair on your arms or head standing up. The presence of static electricity signifies that you are at an increased risk of being struck by lightning.

If you are outdoors and begin to notice this occurring, seek shelter indoors as soon as possible. 

Lightning Strike Effects

Statistics from the National Weather Service show that only 10% of lightning strike incidents result in death; however, most survivors of lightning strikes sustain permanent damage. Some of these effects include:

  • Severe burns
  • Damage to the central nervous system
  • Heartbeat damage and irregularity

Each year, approximately 49 people are killed by lightning strikes in the United States alone. Many of these deaths could be easily preventable with precaution.

Safety Precautions During Lightning Storms

The main thing to keep in mind during a lightning storm is to avoid tall objects and high places at all costs. Many people instinctively seek shelter under tall trees during rainstorms. This is a bad idea as it dramatically increases your chance of being struck by lightning.

If you are caught in a lightning storm and have nowhere to retreat, the best thing to do is crouch down as low as possible.

It is generally safe to be inside a vehicle during a lightning storm as the rubber tires provide insulation from the ground.

So, next time you are caught in a thunderstorm and find yourself using an umbrella, think twice.

About Taylor James

How a hat makes you feel is what a hat is all about - P. Treacy

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