Common misconceptions about lightning
Written by me,
2015, june 21
“The lofty pine is oftenest shaken by the winds; High towers fall with a heavier crash; And the lightning strikes the highest mountain.” Said Roman poet Horace. I’ll give him the first two points, but lightning striking the highest mountain? Let’s see if that is actually true.
1: Lightning never hits the same place twice
There is no reason to believe lightning will only hit a single location once and then somehow ignore it forever. If a location, say a tall building, is especially attractive to lightning it might get hit many times in just a few minutes. Or not at all, lightning doesn’t care.
Where lightning strikes is fairly random. There are locations that are more attractive than others to lightning and they will be more likely to get hit. This is why we put lightning rods on buildings. To create a safe point that will more likely get hit.
2: Lightning always hits the highest point
A lightning bolt consists of two parts, the leaders moving down from the clouds and a leader moving upward from the ground. When these two leaders connect you get a bright flash of lightning. This means that as the leaders are moving down they don’t see anything until they get closer to the ground. If there is a tall object around, the leaders moving up from it might reach the downward leaders first, but it also might not. Maybe a leader coming up from the ground right next to a tall object will reach the lightning first. Lightning is fickle and can strike any location.
3: Getting hit by lightning means certain death
It is not common for people to get hit by lightning, but it does happen an estimated 240.000 times each year. Lightning strikes happen to men more often. 84% of lightning fatalities are male. Most people who get struck by lighting survive the blast, only 20% are killed on impact. If you do survive however, you will still suffer severe burns.
4: Your car is the safest place during a thunderstorm
If you get caught out in a thunderstorm your car is definitely one of the safer places to be. Except sometimes it’s one of worst places to find shelter during a thunderstorm. Cars often resemble a Faraday cage. If lightning hits it the current should flow over the surface of the car down to the earth without hitting anyone inside. Lightning is quite fickle and several conditions can cause lightning to not flow over the surface. If your car is not made of metal, if it’s a convertible, if the car is wet or dry you might not get any protection from lightning.
Photo of the lightning storm by Dmitry Kalinin