Friday, July 6, 2012

The Thunderstorm Safety Factoid

And the factoid is; while outdoors during an approaching thunderstorm is it safer for a human to be in the water, standing on land or somewhere else?

On the afternoon of June 22, 2012, while relaxing on the Ocean City, New Jersey beach dark thunderstorm clouds and lightning approached the ocean from a northwesterly direction. I prepared to leave the beach and surely others would practice a common behavior and leave the beach for safety. Maybe what I consider a common behavior is considered uncommon behavior because no one was leaving the beach. After a few minutes, I heard the loud cadence of a lifeguard whistle. The lifeguards were coaching and motioning people from the ocean. The lifeguards got people out of the ocean and onto the beach - but not a person were leaving the beach nor were they instructed to leave the beach. It was then that paroxysm of scientific reasoning struck me right between my mind’s eyes. I recognized that I believed in a factoid; that during a thunderstorm it is safer standing on land than in the water.  According to National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),, neither place is considered safe; please read on.

Investigation and Interviews:
During the presence of this thunderstorm, I became curious that the lifeguards were removing people from the ocean to the beach - but they were not instructing people to leave the beach. We were now standing between the approaching electrical storm and the water. The lightning in this thunderstorm was moving in a southeasterly direction and towards the ocean. In my selfish critical mode, I asked all three lifeguards, “Why people were being asked to leave the water?” One of the lifeguards appeared obliged to answer me; he went on to say, “. . . there is lightning in the area, hear [see] it.” He appeared to be surprised by my inquiry; he smiled and presented his explanation by posing a condescending question, “Didn’t you hear it, [stupid]?” My response was “yes,” but I said, “May be you can help me better understand why we believe it is safer to stand on the beach during a quickly approaching thunderstorm?”

This lifeguard articulated, “. . . of course the water is more dangerous [in relation to the land] so it’s safer on the beach than in the water. When the lightning gets closer we’ll get everyone off the beach.” I was amazed, and pointed to the northwest, stating, “The lightning is over land and is approaching the ocean. We are standing between the storm and the ocean.” I witnessed a blank stare. I continued (trying my best to become a fairminded critical thinker), “Let me ask you this, but don’t take it personally.  If lightning were to strike within five feet of me on land or five feet of me in the water do you think it would make much difference? Wouldn’t there be a good chance that I would be electrocuted in either situation?” I persisted, “Given the random nature and unpredictability of lightning strikes we cannot predict where the next strike will be.” Thanking him for his insight and I told him maybe he should follow me off the beach.

I quickly departed the beach to my car and followed the dunes for quite a few of blocks. In the near vicinity several close lightning strikes were observed to the west. I encountered three young surfers standing with surfboards in hand on an elevated wooden walkway watching the storm. They were at the apex of the dunes, at the highest natural point along the beach in the presence of lightning. Surely if it were raining they wouldn’t be standing outdoors in the rain. I stopped, leaned out of my car window and struck up a conversation with them. After a meaningless verbal exchange about electrical insulator and conductor facts, I asked if they would help me better understand why it is so important to be out of the water during the presence of lightning.  I was told, “. . . when lightning strikes water you will get electrocuted so it is much safer to wait on land until the storm passes.” These three young adults appeared to be intelligent but they failed to display common sense and believed in a lightning safety factoid regarding the potential for electrocution. They were standing along the highest dunes during an approaching thunderstorm - but they were not in the water.  They appeared to be under the influence of a false sense of security in the presence of lightning. During the thunderstorm they were standing on exposed land rather than swimming in open water - perhaps because they falsely believe it is safer on land than in the water. The selfish critical thinker mode returned and I mentioned to the surfers they were “. . . standing on the highest ground on the beach and that is not a safe place to be – but it was good that they weren’t standing under any trees.”

 Lightning Almost Strikes Two Teenagers on the Beach:

Lightning Safety Training and Education:
Surely these lifeguards are trained in a highly scientific manner using statistically based means and methods to determine the best suitable safety and life saving measures available to them. However, the lifeguards displayed slight misjudgment because of a possible mistaken scientific interpretation for protecting citizens from potential electrocution via lightning strike. It also demonstrates our fellows on the beach and the three surfers have misconceptions (rooted in pseudoscience) in relation to the scientifically proven dangers of lightning and electrocution. In our culture, taking appropriate action from the potential for electrocution during a thunderstorm appears to be a learned behavior as opposed to innate behavior and our children’s educators may be spending too much time with deciphering learning styles in favor of teaching common safety facts involving thunderstorms.

Scientific Facts Lightning Safety:
Neither outdoor location mentioned herein is a safe or a recommended place in a lightning storm. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, in the presence of storm clouds containing electrical activity the best places to be are inside a vehicle with a hard-top roof or an enclosed and grounded structure. Furthermore, safety is not had in the vicinity of a storm for at least ten (10) miles surrounding the storm clouds. This is true for any thunderstorm in the presence of rain or without rain. Most lightning strikes occur before or after the rain event itself. When thunder is heard the potential threat of being struck by lightning dramatically increases. If you hear thunder - seek safety. It is recommended to resume outdoor activities a full thirty (30) minutes after an electrical storm passes.

In this case, the factoid is the assertion that standing on land in a thunderstorm is safer than being in the water which can only be supported by observation because it would be unethical to test to gain scientific proof to support a hypothesis. NOAA’s statistical data on human fatalities caused by lightning strikes from 1995 to 2011 reveal that from 3% (2005) – 17% (1999) of the deaths occur when people are on or in the water; far more human electrocutions occur while on land. These statistics do not imply water is safe during an electrical storm but clearly indicate there is an electrocution danger when in the presence of lightning. Neither outdoor location should be considered harmless during a storm – but it sure appears that many believe the thunderstorm safety factoid.

NWS Lightning Safety Awareness Message:

Personal Opinion:
Given the June 22nd observations, there is a grave anthropological misunderstanding regarding the dangers of electrocution by lightning and the appropriate safety precautions necessary to protect human life from death during a thunderstorm. It is amazing that more people are not killed by lightning strikes each year (e.g., 30-year average is 83 deaths/year). Death by lightning induced electrocution is in no means directly related to human intelligence but is directly related to the presence of a human coming into contact with an electrical discharge between the ground and cloud before, during or after a thunderstorm The probability of a person being killed by lightning is directly related to that person being in the wrong place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time when a random lightning strike occurs in the presence of thunderstorm clouds. The outdoor verse indoor location of the person affects ones chances of becoming a lightning strike fatality. It is safer inside a grounded structure or hard-top vehicle during a thunderstorm than anywhere outdoors, regardless of whether a person is in or on water or on land.  
Additional Information:
By coincidence (which is merely a perceived non-existent pattern), June 24 to June 30, 2012 was Lightning Safety Awareness Week. This annual campaign is intended to scientifically educate the public on safety precautions when exposed to the dangers of a thunderstorm. Our teachers, lifeguards, children and fellow beach friends should visit this website, Recollect, the safest place to be before, during or after an electrical storm not on the beach or the water. As of July 6, 2012, there are seven electrocution deaths in the US from lightning strikes; one on the water and six on the land. There were three deaths in the past fifteen days (June 22nd – July 7th).

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post on this thunderstorm factoid. It is interesting that everyone did not flee the beach that day. I, for one, would have been the first one off of that beach. It is more common than people think to be struck by lightning. I personally know two people who have died from lightning strikes.