Where there is thunder, there is lightning! BAM!!! Lightning can kill!

Lightning in the mountains

Photo Credit Mark Langford. https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/1-mark-langford

Saturday – 26 Jun 2021 – 3:30pm

How to stay safe this season in Pagosa Country

First, what exactly is Lightning?

Lightning is associated with thunderstorms.  The thunder noise is the actual discharge of the lightning in the atmosphere that makes the noise.  BAM!!!  How close was that?

You cannot have one without the other.  However, because of how fast light travels versus noise, you can often see the lightning without hearing the thunder, especially at night.  In other cases, during the day, you might hear the thunder and not see the lightning because the lightning might be isolated to cloud to cloud lightning rather than cloud to ground.  BAM!!!  How close was that?

In areas where you have other loud background noises (construction, flight line), you might not hear the thunder or see the lightning if it is during the day.  So, it is always important to be aware if there is the potential for thunderstorms in the weather forecast.  Especially if you are going to be outside!

1 Lightning Week Science
NWS, Grand Junction, slide for Lightning Safety Week – the Science of Lightning

A thunderstorm is a large Cumulonimbus cloud.  It builds vertically, sometimes very rapidly.  It can tower up to 60,000 feet in the Midwest.  In Pagosa Country during monsoon season they can build from 30,000 to 35,000 feet.  Now think of what happens when you rub a balloon on your head and then you touch someone.  BAM!  Such good fun!  That is a electrostatic discharge.  Think of the cloud as the balloon.  As it builds rapidly, it builds up an electric inequity of positive and negative charges.  It can discharge to the ground, to the air, to other clouds or to a person on the ground.  And it is a GIANT spark of electricity.  When it discharges, it makes a whole bunch of noise! BAM!!!  How close was that?

Start counting as soon as you see the lightning.  Light travels faster than sound.  Every FIVE, “thousand X”, or “X Mississippi” is equal to ONE mile.  If you count to 10, the thunderstorm is only two miles away.  If you can only count to two, you better take cover.

How much lightning do we see?

2 15 19 5yrAvgTotalLightningDensity 2mi SM
Map of the United States showing the number of lightning strikes.  Areas in Arizona correlate nicely to the monsoon pattern from July – September.
3 LightningDensity CO
Map of Colorado showing the number of lightning strikes.  Note the pink areas indicating higher number of strikes overlay nicely on the mountainous areas.

“In an average year, about 500,000 lightning flashes hit the ground in Colorado.”  

Lightning fatalities and injury statistics

4 Lightning Injuries Stat US
Colorado is in the top 10 in the nation for the number of fatalities in recent years.

According to NWS, “In recent years, Colorado was tied for 7th in the Nation when it comes to lightning fatalities  (years 2008-2018). When you look at a longer period of time, Colorado ranks 4th in the Nation for fatalities (years 1959-2019).” That is not a statistic to brag about.

Lightning accounts for 53.1% of the weather related deaths nations wide over a 35 year period of time. Interestingly, more deaths occur by lightning than by hurricanes and tornadoes combined.

5 Lightning Injuries VS month
July is the worst month for fatalities and injuries from lightning.
6 Lightning Injuries VS time
The worst time to be outside hiking in the mountains is between noon and 5pm when thunderstorms are expected.
7 Outdoor Lightning 2
(0), (1), (2) are the riskiest spots to be ahead of, during, and soon after a thunderstorm has left your area.

If you should find yourself outside (despite your best risk assessment), with an approaching thunderstorm there are a few actions you should immediately take.  First, take cover in a hard cover car if one is available.  If not, then take cover in a low-lying area or in a clump of shorter trees that are far away from single tall trees.  If you have trekking poles or fly rods, lay those down in an area away from you.  We have taken cover under clumps of trees a number of times when thunderstorms are moving through the area. 

8 Lightning Week Inside

If you are inside, then avoid taking a shower and using corded electrical devices.  Lightning is very weird, and it can run through a house and not do any damage, or it can wreak havoc and take out all electrical wiring and every appliance and start a fire. 

How to update yourself on current thunderstorms

Remember, you can access a number of radar links on our web page: https://pagosaweather.org/pagosa-weather-resources/radar-links/

The RadarScope app, the Pro version has lightning data. The Weather Bug app also has current lightning data.

Remember, “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”.  See National Weather Service’s Lightning Safety page for more information.  https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning-safety-overview

Be safe out there!

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Arleen Pro

I grew up in Montana where my love of the mountains is rooted. I was in the Air Force, forecasting aviation weather, for 24 years. I had eight assignments and my favorites were Colorado, Alaska, Korea, and Germany. I deployed a number of times including to Iraq and Afghanistan. After RV traveling for nine years, we found paradise in Pagosa. Here we enjoy playing outside in the spectacular San Juan mountains!
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3 Responses

  1. Wow Arleen…absolutely the best info on thunderstorms and lightning I’ve ever read!! Great advice on how to protect yourself during a thunderstorm whether outdoors or indoors!!

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