Archive for Monday, June 21, 2004

Striking back at lightning

Devices help gauge bolts’ proximity

June 21, 2004

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John Lenehan is hoping he's had his last close encounter with a bolt of lightning.

Earlier this month, the 81-year-old Tonganoxie man was walking from his house to check his rain gauge when lightning struck the ground about 20 feet away from him.

"It lit the whole back yard up," Lenehan said. "It was something that ran me back to the house pretty quick."

That experience caused Lenehan to recall other incidents he's had with lightning in his lifetime, such as watching it strike and split a nearby tree when he was a boy. And the time lightning struck his elderly mother's house, going through one end of the house and out the other.

"It's real peculiar and unpredictable at best," Lenehan said of lightning.

Dangerous storms

In the United States there are an estimated 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes each year, according to the National Weather Service. Lightning kills an average of 67 people per year. That is slightly more than the average number of deaths caused by tornadoes and considerably more than caused by hurricanes.

Across Kansas since 1990, there have been five lightning deaths and 23 injuries, according to statistics from the National Climatic Data Center.

That is why this week is recognized by the weather service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as Lightning Safety Awareness Week. That awareness is necessary because more people than ever are participating in outdoor activities and at risk.

Eagle Bend Golf Course pro Bruce Rist shows the course's lightning
detector. The device can detect lightning strikes from many miles
away to give warning to golfers. Other Lawrence Parks and
Recreation programs also use the detectors at outdoor events.

Eagle Bend Golf Course pro Bruce Rist shows the course's lightning detector. The device can detect lightning strikes from many miles away to give warning to golfers. Other Lawrence Parks and Recreation programs also use the detectors at outdoor events.

In fact, it used to be that most lightning strike victims were farmers. Now the victims are mostly people enjoying outdoor recreation, said Mary Knapp, climatologist for the state of Kansas. And that has led to an increase in the development of better technology designed to predict or warn people about approaching lightning storms, she said.

"Outdoor recreation users are beginning to be aware of the need for that and they are showing the willingness to invest in the technology to monitor that risk," Knapp said.

Local precautions

Lightning detection equipment has been around for years but its sophistication and accuracy has increased, Knapp said.

The devices range from hand-held devices that register lightning strikes at a distance from five to 20 miles or more, to computer systems that use multiple weather tracking technology with radar with Global Positioning System information.

There are several companies producing various brands of lightning detectors. The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department has been using hand-held detectors for at least five years at ballfields and the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center, said Ernie Shaw, supervisor of recreation activities. They get newer, improved devices when they become available, he said. Costs are as much as $200 per detector.

"It basically tells us that a lightning strike is in our range but it doesn't tell us where it (the storm) is going," Shaw said. "They've been very good for us."




The city's policy is generally to move people off a playing field if lightning gets to about three miles away, Shaw said.

"Sometimes people get upset if the sun is shining," Shaw said. "We use common sense."

Lightning flashes above the Kansas University skyline in a file
photo.

Lightning flashes above the Kansas University skyline in a file photo.

Hand-held lightning devices also are used at Eagle Bend Golf Course at Clinton Lake.

"With us being behind the dam, it is kind of hard for us to see in the distance," said golf course Supt. Kerry Golden.

Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, Mo., also uses a system that detects lightning strikes at least five miles away, a spokesman said.

High-tech, low-tech

More sophisticated systems that warn of lightning strikes are offered by private weather services. About a year ago, Weather Data Inc., of Wichita, began offering a system called Storm Hawk, which is tied in with the National Lightning Detection Network. The system is customized to the client and shows lightning strikes on a map display on a hand-held device. Lightning strike data is updated within a minute of occurrence, said Cynthia Gibbs, Storm Hawk sales consultant.

Lawrence photographer Kyle Gerstner captured a display around the
KU Campanile in a timed exposure. The photograph was published
previously in the Journal-World.

Lawrence photographer Kyle Gerstner captured a display around the KU Campanile in a timed exposure. The photograph was published previously in the Journal-World.

The system also can tie in lightning strike information with radar and other storm technologies, Gibbs said.

But you don't have to rely on high-tech before knowing when to head for cover, Knapp says. You can use an AM radio, which picks up static from lightning, she noted.

And then there's that other timeless warning:

"If you can hear thunder you are close enough to be at risk," she said.

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