Archive for Sunday, August 3, 2003

Take action to avoid lightning

Lightning Strikes’ good guide to weathering storm

August 3, 2003


— The dolphin fishing had been slow. So when a school of dolphin 3-5 pounds showed up about eight miles off Hallandale on a hot and humid Saturday, boats swarmed to the area.

As anglers picked at the small schoolies, a cool breeze began blowing and black clouds moved overhead. Within minutes rain started falling and thunder crackled in the distance. Judging by the cluster of boats, the fishing must've really been tough that morning because none of them was leaving the schoolies.

We didn't have time to compare notes with the other anglers because we were on our way back to Port Everglades Inlet. My companions had asked whether I wanted to stay and fish or head home. My response was I'd rather come back another day than push our luck.

We got to the inlet in the nick of time. Although the rain and lightning was well to the south of us, the wind had increased dramatically and turned the seas in front of the inlet into a sloppy hodgepodge of steep waves. Those who had stayed offshore were going to pay a wet, bumpy price for those schoolies.

It wasn't until I read "Lightning Strikes" by Jeff Renner ($12.95, The Mountaineers Books) that I learned that I'd employed two of what Renner calls the four A's of thunderstorm safety: Assess and Act.

Renner is the chief meteorologist for KING-TV in Seattle. His job provides him with an in-depth knowledge of thunderstorms. As a skier, climber and hiker, he has an appreciation for being able to avoid getting caught in a storm.

The four A's are the crux of his strategy for safe, enjoyable outdoor experiences. They are Anticipate, which includes checking weather reports on TV, radio and online before you head outdoors; Assess, which is the constant evaluation of weather conditions, such as cloud formations, while you're outdoors; Act, which is doing something to avoid getting hit by lightning or tossed by big waves; and Aid, which is how to help those who have been injured in a storm.

Renner's book goes into detail about the different weather systems that cause lightning.

The most useful of the 160-page paperback's nine chapters concerns what to do as a thunderstorm approaches. As Renner notes, if you can see lightning or hear thunder, it's time to seek shelter.

Thunder can be heard six to 10 miles away, although the absence of thunder doesn't mean a storm isn't closer than six miles. Lightning bolts are visible within 15 miles, and the distance between successive strikes can be three to five miles or more. In other words, if you see a bolt five miles away, the next one can hit you.

Lots of anglers I know use the flash/bang principle for estimating a storm's distance, and most of them do it incorrectly. Renner says to start timing when you see a flash of lightning. Stop timing when you hear the thunder. Divide the number by five. A count of 15 means the lightning is three miles away.

Here's the science behind the principle: Lightning moves almost at the speed of light. Sound moves at about 1,129 feet per second. In five seconds, the sound of thunder travels 5,645 feet, or a little over a mile.

Many of the tips in the book are geared toward golfers, hikers, campers and mountain climbers. When stuck in the woods, seek shelter by groups of trees or shrubs of similar height. The book does not cover what to do if you get stuck on the water in a storm.

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