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Lightning facts that may shock you

Odds are low, but Colorado ranks high on death list
Summer thunderstorms create lightning strikes. While the occurrence of lightning striking humans is low, you probably don’t want to be the one who gets hit.

A few facts about lightning to scare you:

From 2004 to 2013, Colorado had the third-most lightning-strike fatalities of any state with 18.

Even if it doesn’t kill you, lightning can leave you with permanent physical injuries, including brain impairment.

You can’t dodge lightning.

Now that your heart is palpitating, a few facts to calm you down a bit:

As far as lightning strikes per square mile, Colorado is way, way down on the list. It’s 31st among the Lower 48 at 5.0 flashes per square mile per year. (Southwest Colorado is a little higher than the state average, at 6 to 9 flashes.)

If you live to be 80, your odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 12,000. Your odds may not be better to win the lottery, but they’re close.

With lightning season around the corner, the National Weather Service has declared the week beginning today as National Lightning Safety Awareness Week.

The high season for lightning in Colorado is monsoon season, generally mid-July through mid-September, said Jim Pringle, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office based in Grand Junction.

Pringle said when he goes hiking in the mountains, he leaves around sunrise and plans to be off the mountain by noon. Not everyone likes to wake up before dawn on, say, Saturday after a hard workweek, but that’s safest.

Although 85 percent of those struck by lightning survive the blow, about half of those have a long-term disability which could include chronic muscle pains or brain damage.

“The way I look at it, it is better safe than sorry,” Pringle said. “It’s just not worth taking a chance.”

Serious lightning-strike injuries around here certainly are rare.

Mercy Regional Medical Center spokesman David Bruzzese checked Friday with the emergency room, whose chief, Paul Gibson, said he couldn’t remember the last lightning-strike victim at Mercy.

But they do occur here.

If you’ve ever been on Stacy’s Loop in Horse Gulch east of downtown, you’ve been on a trail named for a lightning victim. Stacy Thomas of Salida was with three friends on Telegraph Trail late on a Sunday afternoon in August 1997 when a lightning bolt hit and killed her. She was between two friends each riding about 15 feet away. They began under blue skies.

Three basic ingredients are needed for thunderstorm development: moisture, an unstable atmosphere and some way to start the atmosphere moving.

Pringle said that as a cumulus cloud is developing, updrafts (with warm air) and compensating downdrafts (with cold air) begin to occur. Particles within a cloud begin to collide and coalesce. Ice crystals and hailstones colliding, or raindrops coalescing, cause charge separation. Positive charges concentrate in the middle or upper part of a cloud, and negative charges move to the lower and warmer part of a cloud.

Most cloud-to-ground lightning comes from the negative cloud charges reaching toward positive ground charges.

In one week in mid-July 2013, the U.S. Precision Lightning Network detected 41,318 bolts of lightning reaching the ground in Southwest Colorado. That area was bounded by Red Mountain Pass to the New Mexico line and Wolf Creek Pass to the Utah border.

Some other facts that may scare you – or not:

From 2006 to 2013, men accounted for 81 percent of lightning deaths, according to an analysis by the National Weather Service.

Florida is by far the most dangerous state for lightning. Not only does it have the highest rate of strikes (about 25 per square mile per year – five times Colorado’s rate), it also has far and away the most deaths (46 in the last decade vs. Colorado’s 18).

This year, Florida has reported four lightning deaths, with one each in Michigan, New Mexico and Texas.

About 70 percent of lightning fatalities happen in June, July or August, with July by far seeing the most.

Fishing, not golf, was the most likely activity to result in a lightning death from 2006 to 2013. While 30 fishermen died, only eight golfers did. Most golf courses have early-warning systems and shoo golfers off the course until the danger passes.


Safety tips

Some tips to help keep you from being pulverized by a 50,000-degree bolt of lightning. While many tips seem like common sense, not everyone possesses large amounts of that (or chooses to use it):

Don’t be afraid to postpone or cancel an activity if thunderstorms and lightning are in the area, particularly when no safe shelter is nearby.

Be aware of approaching storms. Golf courses now do this with a siren, but there’s no such luxury on, say, Engineer Mountain.

Among the most dangerous places are open water and mountaintops or ridges.

If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.

If you’re inside, stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.

Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.

Source: National Weather Service

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