Dodging Thor’s Hammer
Lightning is Frightening!
By Tamia Nelson
June 24, 2008
Paddlers are always at the mercy of the elements, and that’s true even in summer. When the sun shines and the Old Woman takes a rare break, we’re on easy street. When the atmosphere is in turmoil, however, canoeists and kayakers pay the price. Sometimes dense fog leaves us wondering where we are. At other times we’re chilled to the bone by a cold rain. Or we feel the wind’s invisible fist pounding relentlessly against our chests as we struggle to cross a big lake. Often we can tough it out. But at other times it makes sense to take the easy option. Day trips can simply be cut short. On overnights, you can linger in camp, sheltering under a tarp or tent, while drinking and eating your fill and catching up on your sleep, snug and safe in the warmth of your cozy bag.
Yet there are times (and places) when even the easy option isn’t enough, times when the weather’s so ugly that you’re…
Betting Your Life
Just by being outside. Any paddler who’s been caught in a thunderstorm knows what I mean. It’s not just the wind, though the wind can rise to hurricane force (and beyond—think tornado here), and it’s not just the rain, though the rain can bucket down with tropical intensity. It’s not the hail, either, though the frozen stones can get big enough and hit hard enough to dent metal roofs. It’s not even the one-two punch that thunderstorms deliver when they gang up, in combinations variously known as mesoscale convective systems (MCSs), mesoscale convective complexes (MCCs), and derechos. Nope. It’s all of these things. Plus one more for good measure: the deadly fireworks we call lightning. I’ve described how thunderstorms form in an earlier article. This week, I’ll concentrate on the light show.
Funnily enough, it’s the banging and crashing that accompanies the show that scares most folks. But loud noises never killed anyone. Lightning has. And does, every year. The bad news is that we paddlers are among those most at risk. You don’t even have to be on the water for lightning to find you. It can strike while you’re portaging, hiking up to a summit for a view, towing your boat to the river on a bike trailer, cooking dinner, or tucked up in your sleeping bag. It can even strike while you’re unloading your canoe from the roof rack on your car. The moral of the story? Simple. Where lightning’s concerned…
You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide
At least you can’t if you’re outdoors. This was my reading of the evidence, at any rate, bolstered by almost half a century spent knocking about in the backcountry. And my suspicions were confirmed by Andy Nash, Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service office in Burlington, Vermont. Andy very kindly sent me statistics detailing how many people were killed by lightning in the US in 2006 and 2007. Every one of the 94 victims was out of doors at the time he (or she) was struck, and 25 were hiking, cycling, picnicking under trees, hanging out on the beach, or having fun on the water. It’s not a comforting picture. The risk to the individual is very small, of course. After all, cars kill some 40,000 people in the US every year, and each of us has something like one chance in 150 of dying in a car crash. So lightning, which claimed only 95 lives in two years, is pretty low on the worry scale. But would you want to be one of the statistics on Andy’s spreadsheet? Me, neither.
Location matters, too. As the Lightning Strike Density Map compiled by the National Space Science and Technology Center’s lightning team illustrates, most of Canoe Country falls near the middle of the risk spectrum, with danger increasing as you head south. This will come as no surprise to Gulf Coast paddlers. (Keep going, though, and things eventually improve. In fact, Antarctica appears to be a lightning-free zone. But paddling opportunities there are limited.)
Click on the map to open a larger image in a new window.
Image courtesy of the NSSTC Lightning Team.
The map is pretty near self-explanatory, I suppose, but it won’t hurt to know that the scale on the right indicates the number of lightning strikes per square kilometer per year. “Cool” colors therefore mean fewer strikes. That’s good news for paddlers. On the other hand, “warm” colors tell you that things are heating up. Keep you eyes on the sky! Or to put it another way…
Expect Lightning Everywhere, Anytime
Why? Because statistics don’t tell you anything about what’s happening right now, right where you are. (Foreign film buffs may remember Jean de Florette and the trouble he got into when he put too much faith in weather statistics.) Lightning can strike anytime, and almost anywhere. Here in Canoe Country it’s most common in the summer months; in the tropics, however, it’s most likely in the spring and autumn. The upshot? Recreational paddlers can expect lightning whenever they’re out on the water.
This doesn’t mean we need to stay at home, of course, or that we ought to do our paddling at second-hand, from the safety of the La-Z-Boy® in front of the TV. It just means we need to remember Edmund Burke’s wise words—Early and provident fear is the mother of safety—and act accordingly. The first rule?
Discretion is the better part of valor
In other words, don’t go out if a storm is on its way. Listen to the weather forecast before setting off for the day. And be a critical consumer. Detailed, professional forecasts of the sort you get on NOAA Weather Radio are much more useful than scattershot sound-bites squeezed in between sports scores or public-service announcements on commercial or “public” radio. Better yet, read the forecasts on the National Weather Service (aka NWS) website for your area—find it by visiting NOAA’s NWS page—and while you’re at it, check out the regional radar. Learn the language, too, particularly the difference between watches and warnings: a watch means that conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop. A warning tells you that it’s imminent. Heed both, even if this means postponing a much-anticipated trip.
That said, it’s never wise to rely solely on forecasts and warnings, however expert the source. Trust your eyes and ears—and your barometer, if you carry one. (You should.) These may be your only sources of information on longer trips, or on expeditions to remote areas. And they’re your best sources at any time. After all, you are the expert on the weather where you are. If you hear thunder, even if it’s faint, it’s a good idea to start thinking about getting off the water, no matter what the forecast said. When it’s quiet—and most of us choose to paddle in quiet places—you can hear thunder from a storm that’s 10 miles away. This distance pretty much marks the limit of the lightning threat, at least in most circumstances. So treat thunder as nature’s own severe thunderstorm watch. Be on your guard. Then, if the interval between flash and bang drops to 30 seconds or less, get off the water. The storm is now within six miles of you. The watch has become a warning.
But what comes next? If, as the experts say, the only real protection from lightning comes from “substantial buildings with grounded wiring and plumbing,” what’s a paddler to do in the backcountry? The only possible answer is…
Do What You Can
Lightning usually strikes the tallest thing around. It’s even happier when a target tapers to a point at the top and is standing alone, in glorious isolation. That’s why you need to get ashore in the first place—when you’re out on the water, you’re “it” in a potentially lethal game of tag. Even when you hit the beach, think small. You want to make yourself short and round, and you want to be surrounded by other short, round things. So don’t take shelter under the tallest tree. And don’t bother putting up your tent. Avoid open areas, exposed ridges, hill tops, and meadows, too. (Get off the beach. Now!) In the backcountry, with the nearest “substantial building” miles away, your best bet to weather the storm is probably to go to ground among a more-or-less uniform stand of smaller trees. Don’t get too close to any one tree, however. The safest place is arguably a spot about half as far from a small tree as the tree is tall, well within the so-called “cone of protection.” Please don’t be deceived by the name, however. This protection is mostly illusory, and—to reiterate—if the tree in question is the tallest one in the neighborhood, or if you’re hugging the trunk, it’s no protection at all. So keep your distance.
Once you’ve picked your spot, concentrate on making yourself a negligible target. Squat on your haunches, feet together, head bowed and mouth open (a nearby strike is less likely to burst an eardrum if your mouth is gaping). This “lightning crouch” isn’t flattering, but it will improve the odds if you’re caught out. And be sure to keep your distance from your companions, too. Cows huddle together in a storm, and every year whole herds are wiped out by a single strike. Don’t be a silly cow! Separate.
And now? What’s next?
Wait. Tell yourself you feel lucky, and believe it. Stay in your lightning crouch until the flash-bang interval has increased to 30 seconds or more. Then join your companions to gather up your gear and eyeball the sky. And rejoice! You’ve survived.
If paddlers went out only in perfect weather, they’d never leave home. But there are times when even the strongest canoeists and kayakers have to call it a day and get off the water. We can’t argue with Thor’s hammer, after all. Lightning is frightening. And for good reason. ’Nuff said? I think so.
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