Flash Facts About Lightning

Did you know that rubber shoes do nothing to protect you from lightning? That talking on the telephone is the leading cause of lightning injuries inside the home? That standing under a tall tree is one of the most dangerous places to take shelter?

And what does it mean if your hair starts to stand on end during a thunderstorm?

Scroll down for the answers to these and other questions—and for tips and procedures to protect yourself and your property against one of nature’s most lethal phenomena.

• Lightning is a giant discharge of electricity accompanied by a brilliant flash of light and a loud crack of thunder. The spark can reach over five miles (eight kilometers) in length, raise the temperature of the air by as much as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (27,700 degrees Celsius), and contain a hundred million electrical volts.

• Some scientists think that lightning may have played a part in the evolution of living organisms. The immense heat and other energy given off during a stroke has been found to convert elements into compounds that are found in organisms.

• Lightning detection systems in the United States monitor an average of 25 million strokes of lightning from clouds to ground during some 100,000 thunderstorms every year. It is estimated that Earth as a whole is struck by an average of more than a hundred lightning bolts every second.

The odds of becoming a lightning victim in the U.S. in any one year is 1 in 700,000. The odds of being struck in your lifetime is 1 in 3,000.

Lightning can kill people (3,696 deaths were recorded in the U.S. between 1959 and 2003) or cause cardiac arrest. Injuries range from severe burns and permanent brain damage to memory loss and personality change. About 10 percent of lightning-stroke victims are killed, and 70 percent suffer serious long-term effects. About 400 people survive lightning strokes in the U.S. each year.

• Lightning is not confined to thunderstorms. It’s been seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, and in large hurricanes.

• Ice in a cloud may be key in the development of lightning. Ice particles collide as they swirl around in a storm, causing a separation of electrical charges. Positively charged ice crystals rise to the top of the thunderstorm, and negatively charged ice particles and hailstones drop to the lower parts of the storm. Enormous charge differences develop.

• The negatively charged bottom part of the storm sends out an invisible charge toward the ground. When the charge gets close to the ground, it is attracted by all the positively charged objects, and a channel develops. The subsequent electrical transfer in the channel is lightning.

If your hair stands up in a storm, it could be a bad sign that positive charges are rising through you, reaching toward the negatively charged part of the storm. That’s not a good sign! Your best bet is to get yourself immediately indoors.

• The rapid expansion of heated air causes the thunder. Since light travels faster than sound, the thunder is heard after the lightning. If you see lightning and hear thunder at the same time, that lightning is in your neighborhood. If you see successive strokes of lightning in the same place on the horizon then you are in line with the storm, and it may be moving toward you.

• Not all lightning forms in the negatively charged area low in the thunderstorm cloud. Some lightning originates in the top of the thunderstorm, the area carrying a large positive charge. Lightning from this area is called positive lightning.

Positive lightning is particularly dangerous, because it frequently strikes away from the rain core, either ahead or behind the thunderstorm. It can strike as far as 5 or 10 miles (8 or 16 kilometers) from the storm, in areas that most people do not consider to be a lightning-risk area.

• During a thunderstorm, each flash of cloud-to-ground lightning is a potential killer. The determining factor on whether a particular flash could be deadly depends on whether a person is in the path of the lightning discharge.

In addition to the visible flash that travels through the air, the current associated with the lightning discharge travels along the ground. Although some victims are struck directly by the main lightning stroke, many victims are struck as the current moves in and along the ground.

If you can hear thunder, you are within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of a storm—and can be struck by lightning. Seek shelter and avoid situations in which you may be vulnerable.

Use the 30-30 rule, when visibility is good and there is nothing obstructing your view of the thunderstorm. When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If that time is 30 seconds or less, the thunderstorm is within six miles (ten kilometers) of you and is dangerous. Seek shelter immediately.

The threat of lightning continues for a much longer period than most people realize. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter. Don’t be fooled by sunshine or blue sky!

• Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months, when the combination of lightning and outdoor activities reaches a peak. People involved in activities such as boating, swimming, fishing, bicycling, golfing, jogging, walking, hiking, camping, or working outdoors all need to take the appropriate actions in a timely manner when thunderstorms approach.

• The Fourth of July is historically one of the most deadly times of the year for lightning in the U.S.. In summer, especially on a holiday, more people are outside, on the beach, golf course, mountains, or ball fields. Outdoor jobs such as construction and agriculture, and outdoor chores such as lawn mowing or house painting are at their peak, putting people involved in danger.

Where organized sports activities take place, coaches, umpires, referees, or camp counselors must protect the safety of the participants by stopping the activities sooner, so that the participants and spectators can get to a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant.

• People on or in or near water are among those most at risk during thunderstorms. Swimming is particularly dangerous, as not only do swimmers protrude from the water, presenting a potential channel for electrical discharge, but also because water is a good conductor of electricity.

• Inside homes, people must also avoid activities which put their lives at risk from a possible lightning strike. As with the outdoor activities, these activities should be avoided before, during, and after storms.

In particular, people should stay away from windows and doors and avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity, including landline telephones. Most people hurt by lightning while inside their homes are talking on the telephone at the time.

• People may also want to take certain actions well before the storm to protect property within their homes, such as electronic equipment. Surge protectors do not protect against direct lightning strikes. Unplug equipment such as computers and televisions.

• If a person is struck by lightning, medical care may be needed immediately to save the person’s life. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns, and nerve damage are common in cases where people are struck by lightning. However, with proper treatment, including CPR if necessary, most victims survive a lightning strike, although the long-term effects on their lives and the lives of family members can be devastating.

• A house or other substantial building offers the best protection from lightning. For a shelter to provide protection from lightning, it must contain a mechanism for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground. These mechanisms may be on the outside of the structure, may be contained within the walls of the structure, or may be a combination of the two.

On the outside, lightning can travel along the outer shell of the building or may follow metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning can follow conductors such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone lines to the ground.

• Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if anything, to protect occupants from lightning. Many small open shelters on athletic fields, on golf courses, in parks, at roadside picnic areas, in school yards, and elsewhere are designed to protect people from rain and sun, but not lightning.

A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground is not safe. Small wooden, vinyl, or metal sheds offer little or no protection from lightning and should be avoided during thunderstorms.

• There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure and into the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio or television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.

Phone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States. Lightning can travel long distances in both phone and electrical wires, particularly in rural areas.

Do not lie on the concrete floor of a garage as it likely contains a wire mesh. In general, basements are a safe place to go during thunderstorms. However, avoid contact with concrete walls, which may contain metal reinforcing bars.

Avoid washers and dryers, since they not only have contacts with the plumbing and electrical systems but also contain an electrical path to the outside through the dryer vent.

Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. If you plan to unplug any electronic equipment, do so well before the storm arrives.

Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry.

Victims of lightning do not retain the charge and are not “electrified.” It is safe to help them.

Rubber shoes will not give you any meaningful protection from lightning.

Lightning can—and often does—strike in the same place twice. Tall buildings and monuments are frequently hit by lightning.

• A motor car with a metal top can offer you some protection—but keep your hands from the metal sides.

An umbrella can increase your chances of being struck by lightning if it makes you the tallest object in the area.

Always avoid being the highest object anywhere—or taking shelter near or under the highest object, including tall trees. Avoid being near a lightning rod or standing near metal objects such as a fence or underground pipes.

Credit: NOAA/National Geographic

and watch the summer waste away: Atmosphere over the Pacific, photographed by GOES-15, autumn 2014.

16 frames over 48 hours, 30th September-1st October 2014. Each frame composed of 2 images; 1 in visible light, 1 in infrared. Infrared coverage is continuous; the visible light coverage moves from right to left as sunlight sweeps across the ocean, illuminating the cloud tops.

In the right light, you can just see a ghostly image the west coast of North America toward top right.

Image credit: NOAA/NASA. Animation: AgeOfDestruction. Title: Aimee Mann.

Good news! NOAA Fisheries just gave scalloped hammerhead sharks protection under the Endangered Species Act!  Sharks worldwide are in danger because of “finning” for shark fin soup, and accidental bycatch. We’re glad to have played a lead role in passage of the shark fin ban in California, a movement that’s spreading to many other states – and even to China!

Learn more

Watch them live on exhibit


In a typical month, the planet is shaken by an average of one or two medium-to-large earthquakes. This past month was not typical. Things were running on track up until the end of March, and then the ground went totally bonkers.

There was an incredible 13 quakes of magnitudes 6.5 or higher in April. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which issued bulletins for each one, says that is “easily a record for this institution.” Five of these temblors were powerful enough that the center also put out tsunami warnings. They include the massive quakes in northern Chile at the beginning of the month, as well as three more that shook the Solomon Islands in the following weeks.

The unusual spike in seismic activity is shown in this animation, which displays the locations and depths of quakes for the first four months of 2014.

-April Had a Record Number of Big Earthquakes


why: Atmosphere over the Pacific, photographed by GOES-15, 1st October 2014.

8 pairs of infrared images over 24 hours. Each frame a composite of 1 image in 6.5 µm light, showing mid-level water vapor (deep swirls) and 1 image in 13.3 µm, showing cloud heights (bright).

Second gif adds an overlay of national borders. 

Image credit: NOAA/NASA. Animation: AgeOfDestruction.

Study Documents Crude Oil’s Toxic Impact on Tuna Hearts

Scientists from Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have discovered that crude oil interferes with tuna heart cells in ways that can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death.

The study, published February 14 in Science, looks at some of the impacts of the massive Deepwater Horizon crude oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The specific mechanism behind the cardiotoxic effects of crude oil were documented for the first time in work by the Stanford team at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center, a 10-year collaboration between Stanford and the Aquarium.

Because heart function in tunas is similar to that in humans, marine mammals and other vertebrates, the Stanford team is recommending further study to determine if human hearts are at risk when they’re exposed to the same hydrocarbon compounds in polluted air. 

The Aquarium, Stanford and NOAA funded the research project.

Learn more about the work of the Tuna Research and Conservation Center.


Green or Arid

  1. These are rather unusual; crafted from a year’s worth of data collected by the Suomi NPP satellite, this digitally-constructed image show the difference between green and arid areas of Earth. Photograph: NASA/NOAA/Rex Features
  2. Here, urbanised areas of northern Egypt are visible amidst the deserts. The image also shows the Nile River which provides life-sustaining water to the region. Photograph: NASA/NOAA/Rex Features

via Orca Network: January 24 NOAA Fisheries proposed a rule to grant Lolita equal status with her family as a member of an endangered species, pending a 2-month comment period before it is made final.

Now our challenge is to persuade NOAA Fisheries to overcome the beliefs promulgated to serve their own interests by the combined forces of the entire captive orca industry over the past four decades that captive orcas can never be returned to their native waters because it could kill them or could harm their wild conspecifics (family).

So we are asking all supporters of our proposal for Lolita’s retirement to submit comments to NOAA Fisheries along these lines:

The comment period - to help persuade NOAA Fisheries to not only follow through and grant Lolita’s inclusion as a member of her family, but to allow her to return to her home - began January 27. You can make your comments at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2013-0056-1841.

Even if/when she is finally determined to be a member of her family under the ESA, if NOAA Fisheries believes her health or her family’s health could be harmed by her return to her native waters they don’t have to allow her to be retired. We have drafted some basic points to make here to clarify those issues:

3 essential points to make:

1. There is no significant risk to Lolita in any stage of Orca Network’s proposal for Lolita’s retirement in her native waters.
a. Transport of orcas according to established protocols is commonly done and has never resulted in serious health issues;
b. Immersion of captive marine mammals in their native waters is described as therapeutic in veterinary literature;
c. The initial immersion is likely to be followed by exploration of the seapen environs, and heightened energy and metabolic strength, as demonstrated by Keiko upon immersion in Icelandic waters;
d. Her ability to catch and eat wild fish is likely to begin to resume in a matter of weeks or months, again as demonstrated by Keiko.

2. A thorough examination will be conducted by a team of veterinarians and pathologists prior to transport to detect any potential communicable diseases. Assuming there are not, there will be no significant risk to any members of the Southern Resident Community as a result of Lolita’s return to her native waters.

Conclusion: there is no harm to Lolita or her family involved in returning her to her home waters.

3. Remaining in captivity will result in continuing mental and physical stresses and health issues.
a. Abundant evidence, including peer-reviewed scientific publications, indicate that captivity increases mortality rates for orcas;
b. Due to her loneliness from living without the companionship of another orca for over three decades, and due to her exposure to the midday Miami sun, and due to the extremely small size of the tank that has been her only environs for over four decades, she is continually suffering as long as she remains in captivity;
c. Despite Lolita’s unlikely good health at over 45 years of age, she is still subject to the adverse effects of captivity on her emotional, mental and physical health.

Conclusion: remaining in captivity DOES constitute real harm to Lolita, and given her relatively good health notwithstanding her conditions, she is an excellent candidate for return to her native waters for retirement under human care in a sea pen, and potentially for eventual full release.

Every Single Recorded Hurricane (since 1851) in One Map

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a tropical storm and hurricane data archive that stretches back to 1851.

But looking at each storm individually doesn’t have nearly as much impact as seeing them all projected onto a map at once. Data visualization expert John Nelson combined data on historical storms’ paths and intensities to create this stunning image, where the color of a dot represents that storm’s intensity.


All organisms pictured above were caught and killed as by-catch by commercial fishermen off the coast of California. These fishermen were using drift gill-nets—mesh nets that can reach one mile in length—to catch sword fish.

As estimated by Geoff Shester, the California Program Director for Oceana, one marine mammal dies for every five swordfish caught. These marine mammals—as well as other marine organisms such as sharks, rays, and turtles—die of either suffocation or intense wounds caused by the nets.

The use of drift gill-nets has been outlawed in California State Waters for over 20 years; however, fishermen who specifically target sword fish are allowed to fish with few restrictions. This basically means that they receive special privileges—one being the fact that they are allowed to use drift nets.

Oceana—an organization promoting marine conservation—supported the legislation to completely ban the use of gill-nets in Californian waters. Unfortunately, those supporting the ban lost their chance to protect marine organisms by one vote.

A friendly tip to those of you who enjoy seafood: please stop eating swordfish—especially if you know that the animal was caught through the use of gill-nets. If you ask a waiter or butcher where they purchase their fish from, they should be able to give an answer (even if they have to ask a manager). If it was caught in California, there may be a good chance that gill-nets were used.

Photos collected from NOAA.
Information from Brian Epstein’s article on PBS.


juneborn: A year over the Pacific, photographed by GOES-15, 2012-2013.

24 frames, photographed at at the same time of day (0300 UTC) on the 7th and 22nd of each month from June 2012 to June 2013 (one year, solstice-to-solstice). 2nd gif rearranges the frames to keep the angle of sunlight constant.

This is the effect caused by the fixed tilt of Earth’s axis and Earth’s orbit around the Sun; you can see the periods when the poles experience day or night for months at a time - this is when the poles are tilted toward and away from the Sun, respectively. 

Image credit: NOAA/NASA, via NCDC/GIBBS. Animation: AgeOfDestruction.