Lightning: A Common Summer Hazard in Southern Ocean

Aug 02, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Last month, lightning found its way into the news. The recent wildfire that burned approximately 3,500 acres was not set by someone carelessly tossing a cigarette into the dry woods. Rather, the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service determined the fire began with a lightning strike to several trees.

At around the same time, a 34-year-old man was struck by lightning at the Viking Yacht Center in Bass River Township. According to New Jersey State Police, the man, who survived, was standing on a dock when the incident occurred.

Five summers ago, a lightning strike caused $960,000 worth of damage to computer and phone systems in the Long Beach Township municipal complex in Brant Beach. Also, lightning resulted in a power outage for several hours in Harvey Cedars.

These events should keep people ever mindful of the dangers of lightning. Sure, bolts from the sky may be exciting to watch from indoors, but all it takes is one strike to kill or seriously injure someone, or disrupt the lives of thousands by wreaking havoc on power grids.

Electrical storms can be a part of an arriving cold front or sometimes they can form suddenly, especially when it is very hot and humid. It is the latter “pop up” storms that often cause anxious moments for lifeguards on the beach.

“Before going to their posts, lifeguards look at the weather and the radar and keep an eye on it,” said Harvey Cedars Police Chief Robert Burnaford, a former lifeguard. “On days when it is very sunny and the humidity is going to stay very low, you’re probably not going to run into problems. It’s those heat wave days that bring the risk of storms. Of course, those are the days when the beach is going to be heavily populated so the lifeguards need to do everything they can to make sure everyone’s safe.”

He said guards need to start preparing for action once they see dark storm clouds forming toward the west.

“What’s most important is to get the people out of the water and off the beach in a timely fashion,” said Burnaford. “If you wait until you hear thunder and see lightning in the distance, then you get people racing out of the water and the beach and that isn’t safe. You could be just minutes away from the storm hitting the beach.”

Sometimes people can get lulled into a false sense of security to resume outdoor activities after the storm passes and sunlight starts beaming through the clouds. But sometimes one storm can be quickly followed by another, especially on days when the air mass is very unstable.

“That’s why it is recommended to wait at least 30 minutes before resuming any outdoor activity,” said Walter Drag, meteorologist and marine weather specialist for the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly. “Lightning is capable of striking as far as 8 to 10 miles away from the storm, so you need to take time to make sure the storm passes.”

Jim Eberwine, retired lead forecaster and hurricane program manager for the Mount Holly office, said to determine how far away you are from lightning, count the number of seconds that pass between a flash and the crack of thunder that follows it, then divide that number by five. The resulting number will tell you how many miles away you are from where lightning just struck. This technique is called the “flash-to-bang” method.

The National Weather Service recommends taking cover if the time between the lightning flash and the rumble of thunder is 30 seconds or less, which indicates the lightning is about 6 miles away or closer.

Five seconds, for example, indicates the lightning struck 1 mile away, and a 10-second gap means the lightning was 2 miles away.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an average 47 people are killed by lightning strikes annually in the United States. So far in 2017, NOAA has recorded 11 fatalities, none in New Jersey and five occurring in Florida, the most recent on July 28.

“The reported number of injuries is likely far lower than the actual total because many people do not seek help or doctors do not record it as a lightning injury,” NOAA said on its website. “People struck by lightning suffer from a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, and numbness.”

And while you might think you are completely safe indoors, NOAA said you still have to take precautions.

“A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity,” NOAA says. “This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.”

One of the highest points on the Island is the 172-foot-high Barnegat Lighthouse, where people climb a series of 217 steps to get to the top to see a panoramic view of the Island. But in the event of a thunderstorm, the lighthouse is closed. 

Water towers can also be an inviting target for lightning, which is why such structures are grounded. Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck said if the borough water tower was struck, the electricity would be conducted to the ground through a wire, instead of passing through the structure, where it could start a fire or cause electrocution and damage equipment. 

“We have several cellular antennae and other towns on the Island have them, too,” he said. “You have to protect those assets.”

He added, “The worst place to be in a lightning storm is the beach, especially if you have a fishing pole. Lightning bolts love fishing poles.”

Eberwine said, “Unfortunately, too many people don’t take lightning seriously enough. They should know that when you hear that first rumble, seek shelter.” 

— Eric Englund




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