Most people have experienced spectacular electrical storms, but few fully understand the very real danger of being struck by lightning. In Indonesia, lightning strikes the ground more than 400,000 times every year, so the risk is high and everyone should know what to do if they find themselves exposed during an electrical storm.
Statistics show that around the world, approximately 2,000 people are killed by lightning every year and about 10 times as many are severely injured. The risks are greatest for those who are working or engaging in sports close to water, but anyone who works outside or engages in outdoor activities is at risk.
Although you can never completely eliminate the risk of being struck by lightning, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the odds. Whenever there is a thunderstorm, seek shelter. Try to get inside a building or, if that is not possible, stay inside a motor vehicle. A modern motor vehicle can act as a “Faraday cage,” conducting the electrical charge harmlessly around its occupants and to ground.
If you are on water, particularly if you are in a small boat, try to get to shore as quickly as you can, as water attracts lighting and will greatly increase the likelihood of your being affected by a lightning strike. Never shelter under tall or isolated trees, as this is one of the most dangerous places to be — some estimates indicate that as many as one in four people who are struck by lightning are sheltering under or near to trees.
In the rainy season, when thunderstorms are more likely, it is wise to take a few extra precautions. If you are planning outdoor activities, it is always a good idea to check the weather forecast before you leave. If storms are predicted, try to change your plans. If you cannot avoid being outside, try to make yourself aware of objects around you that could conduct electricity, such as wire fences, tall poles or scaffolding — most metal objects will attract or conduct lightning. Take mental note of buildings nearby where you would be able to seek shelter until the storm is over. Avoid using your mobile phone if you are outside during a storm and remember that even when you are inside a building, lightning strikes can be conducted along water pipes and TV or electricity cables.
Some people have reported warning signs immediately prior to a lightning strike. Some have said appliances started to buzz and others have reported that their hair began to stand on end. If you notice these things happening or if you are concerned for any other reason, take shelter in a safe location as soon as you can.
Lightning kills by interrupting the heart’s rhythm and by affecting the brain and therefore the body’s motor functions. The heart may return to normal on its own, but breathing will not. The high voltage can also cause severe burning to internal organs and arteries. Those who are not killed by a lighting strike will often be paralyzed for life or suffer other long-lasting health effects.
Eamonn Sadler is a writer and a columnist. He is based in Jakarta and was formerly a firefighter in Britain.