Fire in the Sky
Lightning Fact or Fiction?
1. If your hair stands on end, you’re about to be struck by lightning.
Fact. If your hair stands on end, you could be in an area where a charge is building before a lightning strike.
2. Lightning only happens where it’s raining.
Fiction. Most deaths and injuries from lightning occur as a storm is rapidly approaching or within a half-hour after one has passed. Lightning can strike as far as six miles ahead of or behind the storm, even while the sky overhead is blue.
3. What you wear (sneakers, rubber boots, hairpins, cleats, etc.) can increase or decrease your chances of being struck by lightning.
Fiction. Studies indicate that what you wear doesn’t make much difference either way.
4. You’re safe from lightning inside a car because the rubber tires act as insulators.
Fact and Fiction. You are safe from lightning in a car if it has a metal top and sides and if the doors and windows are shut tight. Don’t touch the car frame, steering wheel, ignition, gear shift, or radio. The metal shell of the car conducts the electricity away and that protects you, not the tires.
5. Carrying an umbrella can be dangerous when lightning is present.
Fact. Anything that makes you taller increases your risk.
6. If lightning only hits the ground close by, you’re safe.
Fiction. When lightning hits the ground, the current spreads along the surface to a depth of a few inches. Any fence or pipe in its path will be charged with energy for quite a distance. Any person in its path can be injured.
7. Lightning travels down telephone wires.
Fact. If lightning strikes your home, the charge travels through power lines, phone lines, and plumbing until it reaches the ground. If you’re in the bath or shower, touching an electric appliance, or on a corded phone, you could be injured.
8. People struck by lightning are electrified and dangerous to touch.
Fiction. People who have been struck by lightning are NOT dangerous to touch. In fact, after people are struck, their hearts or breathing often stop and they must be given first aid immediately.
Do the Safe Thing
- If a storm is coming or under way, stay indoors. Lightning can travel through wiring and water pipes, so stay away from bathtubs, sinks, corded phones, and anything that uses electricity, like TVs, computers, video games, or appliances. Keep away from windows. Stay indoors for 30 minutes or more after you hear the last thunder.
- If you must be outside during a storm, stay near proper shelter. Proper shelter is a large, enclosed building with conventional wiring and plumbing. Count the time from when you see lightning to when you hear thunder. If the time is 30 seconds or less, seek shelter. Don’t leave the shelter until 30 minutes or more has elapsed after the last thunder.
If you can’t get indoors:
- Your next best choice is to get into a hardtop car—not a convertible—and roll up the windows. Don’t touch the car frame, steering wheel, ignition, gear shift, or radio. Avoid open vehicles like golf carts (even with roofs), tractors, etc.
- Avoid trees, tall objects, and anything metal, such as flag poles, metal bleachers, golf clubs, tall light poles, etc.
- Avoid rivers, lakes, and swimming pools. If you are boating, head to shore.
- Avoid wide-open areas, including sports fields.
What Is Static Electricity?
Atoms contain charged particles called protons and electrons. Protons have a positive charge, while electrons have a negative charge. When an atom has the same number of protons as electrons, the charges cancel each other out and the atom is electrically neutral.
But atoms can lose or gain electrons. An atom that loses electrons becomes positively charged. An atom that gains electrons becomes negatively charged. The buildup of electric charge (either positive or negative) on an object is called static electricity. (The word static means “not moving.”)
Static electricity is different from electrical current in that it does not flow continuously. Electrons move from one atom to the next creating a flow or current. In static electricity, the outer electrons from one substance get free from their atoms and can attach to another substance, thus giving the second substance a negative charge. Electrons can get free when two items rub together—like your shoes rubbing across the rug.
Static electricity is the imbalance of positive and negative charges. Two things with opposite charges will pull towards each other.
Advanced Science Concept
- How much energy is in a bolt of lightning? One lightning strike carries 30 million volts—as much electricity as 2.5 million car batteries.
- What is St. Elmo’s Fire? It’s a type of lightning that clings to ships’ masts and makes them glow. It was named for a 4th-century Italian bishop, Elmo, patron saint of fire.
- Who holds the world’s record for being hit by lightning most often? According to Guinness World Records, Roy G. Sullivan, a former U.S. park ranger, was struck by lightning seven times over the course of his 35-year career. Lightning has burned off his eyebrows, seared his shoulder, set his hair on fire, injured his ankle, and burned his belly and chest.