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Lightning Safety: What to do if you're caught in a thunderstorm

In a thunderstorm, substantial shelters are safest
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jun 14, 2024

Colorado gets a lot of lightning. A half million strikes per year hit the centennial state. On average, two people die and 12 are injured each year from lightning in Colorado, according to National Weather Service data. You've probably heard that it's best to be inside during a thunderstorm - and that's true. The safest place is inside of a substantial structure.

In a thunderstorm, substantial shelters are safest
In a thunderstorm, substantial shelters are safest

If you can't get indoors, the next best option is an enclosed vehicle like a car, van, or truck. Less substantial shelters can offer some degree of protection depending on their design - but if you're hiking, caves are NOT effective at protecting you. Lightning can hit the rock above the cave, and will transmit through the cave walls as it spreads out into the ground below. Other dangerous places to be:

  • Open fields and spaces - you are the tallest object on a large surface, and lightning typically strikes the highest point within a zone of enough charge separation.
  • Ridgelines - you're on the tallest terrain of your surroundings
  • Under trees - you're directly under a relatively taller object to your surroundings

If you are caught outside in a storm and cannot get inside, your best place to be is to be in low-lying terrain. It can be difficult to avoid every element on this list (for example avoiding both open spaces and trees) - but generally, a space with dense trees that's lower than the surrounding ground, is best. Isolated trees are a bigger risk than a large forest - but your risk is still not zero. If on a mountain, the lower you are, the better.

The most common myth with thunderstorms is that you cannot get lightning beyond the base of the cloud. The fact is: If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning, even if the sky above you is clear! That's due to the special properties of air: you can only hear thunder within around 10 miles of a lightning strike. This distance is well within the range from which enough electric charge can separate, making it a good and easy to use indication of your risk.

Lightning often strikes far from a thundercloud - if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning

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