Press-Republican

June 30, 2013

Something must be done about lightning

By STEVE OUELLETTE You Had to Ask
Press-Republican

---- — This past week, 23 Boy Scouts were injured by a lightning strike while they were camping in a New Hampshire forest.

Just the latest victims of an international menace which our government has done nothing to stop.

If the Scouts had been injured by a machete-wielding madman, officials would have put National Guard patrols in the woods. If they’d been cut down by a virulent strain of poison oak, politicians would have pressured the CDC for a cure and sprayed the woods with industrial-strength weed killer.

Because it was lightning, however, no solution was even sought. If these highly trained Scouts — members of the nation’s most elite fighting force — are unable to defend themselves against this so-called lightning, what chance do the rest of us have?

Since this is Lightning Safety Awareness Week, it seems like the proper time to discuss the issue.

First, it’s important for us to understand what causes lightning. Most believe that when there is thunder, God is bowling with the angels, and the lightning signals that someone just got a strike (presumably God, who could hardly be expected to leave a 7-10 split).

This, however, may not be the only explanation. Others think that lightning bolts are hurled by the Norse God Thor, sometimes in anger, sometimes just to mess with the Incredible Hulk, who’s unnaturally freaked out by thunderstorms.

Still others theorize that lightning is a release of static electricity from the clouds, caused by a particular mixture of electrons and protons (or by a sweater-garbed supreme being petting a giant, long-haired cat on a shag carpet).

Whatever the cause, lightning generally kills more people a year than hurricanes or tornadoes. An average of 53 Americans a year are killed by bolts from the sky, with hundreds more struck and injured.

It’s even worse in other countries, Colombia for instance, where residents are statistically 10 times more likely to be hit by lightning than they are in the United States. This year, one 20-year-old Colombian soldier was struck four separate times. Ingenious local doctors buried him alive (up to his neck) to remove his electrical properties.

Survival tip No. 1: If you find yourself outside in a thunderstorm, we recommend digging a man-sized hole and jumping in for safety.

A bolt of lightning can heat the air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 50 degrees Celsius, for you Canadians), which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. No idea what happens when lightning strikes the surface of the sun, but safe to say that you don’t want to be there when it happens.

Every year, the Earth experiences an average of 25 million lightning strikes, with roughly 1,800 thunderstorms going on at any given time.

Scared yet? There’s a reason that my dog, with her highly trained senses, bravely whimpers and cowers under the bed whenever a thunderstorm begins.

Tip No. 2: Lightning goes for the highest source. When participating in outdoor activities, always invite a friend who is taller than you. Explain to him or her that the tinfoil hat you’ve provided is a sign of honor and respect in your home country.

Men should be even more afraid than women, children and Scouts. Recent statistics show that 82 percent of deaths from 2006 to 2012 were men, a wholly unfair number that has caused more than one astraphobic to undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

According to the National Weather Service, men are apparently “unwilling to be inconvenienced by the threat of lightning.” Huh. Go figure.

The most dangerous thing you can be doing with lightning in the area is fishing; 43 percent of this year’s deaths have been fishermen. From this we can deduce that God loves fish more than humans. Or that Poseidon and Thor are working in concert. Or that holding long metal rods in or near the water during a thunderstorm is silly.

Some people think that they can avoid lightning with one simple ploy: Stand on a spot where lightning has previously struck, because it never strikes twice in the same place. This unfortunately, is not true. The Empire State Building is hit an average of 23 times a year. Former Virginia park ranger Roy Sullivan was struck seven times.

Tip No. 3: You are safe in a car, but only if the windows are rolled up. One of Sullivan’s lightning strikes came while he was driving a car with the windows open.

Your chances of being struck by lightning in any given year are about one in 650,000. If you live to be 80, your chances of being struck someday are about one in 3,000.

What can be done to protect us from these death-dealing bolts? We can try cursing the sky when lightning shortens our baseball games and delays our tee times, but that seems counterproductive.

I, for one, am writing my congressman. In the past 50 years, how many trillions of dollars have been spent protecting us from nuclear attacks that have never come? While lightning picks off Americans, one by one. Something must be done.

Email Steve Ouellette:

ouellette1918@gmail.com