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Flight surgeon busts lightning myths

Time-lapse photography captures multiple cloud-to-ground lightning strokes during a night-time thunderstorm.  (Photo courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory)

Time-lapse photography captures multiple cloud-to-ground lightning strokes during a night-time thunderstorm. (Photo courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The Italian peninsula is no stranger to thunderstorms. The ancient Romans believed Jupiter hurled bolts of lightning and issued thunderclaps from his throne on Mount Olympus. Near Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, large storm cells sweep down from nearby mountains with little or no warning.

Injury and death remain serious threats to both local nationals and active duty members in the surrounding area. Although current scientific understanding of these phenomena have explained away Jupiter's role in lightning strikes, general knowledge on this topic is often lacking. Persistent myths continue to circulate throughout the media, internet and public opinion with disastrous consequences.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last 20 years, the United States averaged 51 annual lightning strike fatalities. Italy has experienced between 10 and 15 deaths annually in recent years. The last lightning fatality in Friuli Venezia Giulia occurred near Udine in August 2011. A majority of lightning strikes occur during summer afternoons when thunderstorms are most prevalent and people are most likely to spend time outdoors. Unfortunately, most occurrences in the developed world are preventable. Below are some of the most consequential myths followed by the current scientific counter:

Myth: Lightning strikes are always fatal.
Truth: Mortality rates range from 10-30 percent depending on the source of data. Most people that are struck by lightning live to tell the story. However, many suffer from long term injury or disability.

Myth: Lightning victims are electrified and should not be touched.
Truth: The human body does not retain an electric charge like a battery. Some victims have had necessary resuscitation efforts delayed due to this myth. Early cardio-pulmonary resuscitation is the only chance of survival for a lightning victim in cardiac arrest.

Myth: The most common cause of death or injury are burns.
Truth: The most common cause of immediate death is cardiac arrest. The most common cause of delayed death is suicide due to depression from the resulting disability lightning strike survivors may suffer. Less than one-third of lightning victims have burns. Burns can occur due to steam produced by sweat or rain on the skin, or from metal or synthetic material being worn close to the skin. Other causes of immediate injury are from the explosive forces of lightning. These include fractures, ruptured ear drums and eye injuries. Common delayed injuries affect the nervous system and include memory and attention deficits, chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality changes, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

Myth: Insulating raincoats, sleeping bags and wearing shoes with rubber soles will decrease the likelihood of lightning injuries.
Truth: Air is a more effective insulator than any of these objects. A lightning bolt strong enough to slash its way through this excellent insulator will not be stopped by a small layer of rubber or insulating material.

Myth: Wearing metal objects or touching metal increases risk or 'attracts' lightning.
Truth: It is true that metal will conduct lightning once struck, but lightning does not seek out metal. The only known factors affecting where lightning strikes are an object's height, isolation and an object's 'pointiness'. However lightning does not always strike the highest object in its vicinity. Because of lightning's propensity to splash from struck objects and produce ground currents through the earth, there is no place outdoors considered safe from lightning.

Myth: Audible thunder without visible lightning is a safe environment from lightning strikes.
Truth: Lightning and thunder are part of the same natural phenomena. Thunder is merely the sound lightning produces. Conversely, thunder is a reliable tool to estimate distance and danger. It is seldom audible greater than 10 miles away, which is considered a safe distance from a lightning strike. If you can't hear thunder, you are probably safe.

Myth: One is safe from lightning in the absence of a severe weather warning.
Truth: It is estimated there are about 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes annually in the U.S. and 578,000 in Italy. Any of these are potentially fatal. It is impossible for National Weather Services to provide warnings for every lightning strike. In fact, only 25 percent of U.S. lightning fatalities are associated with tornado or severe weather storm warnings.

Myth: Outdoor shelters such as caves or pavilions provide safety from lightning strike.
Truth: Many fatalities have occurred due to the false security these types of shelters provide. The propensity of lightning to form a ground arc makes these shelters some of the most dangerous places. The only places safe from lightning injury are inside large buildings with grounded wiring and plumbing or inside a metal-topped vehicle. Indoor injuries and deaths can occur, although they are rare, and usually involve using a landline telephone or other appliance at the time of the lightning strike. It should also be noted that cloth-topped vehicles such as Jeeps or convertibles or open vehicles such as golf carts will not offer protection from a lightning strike.

In summary, the only way to be truly safe from lightning is to go indoors. This fact has led the National Weather Service to adopt the mantra, "When thunder roars, go indoors."

Another helpful rule is the '30-30 rule'. The first 30 refers to the number of seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. A count less than 30 indicates danger and appropriate shelter should be sought as soon as possible. The second 30 suggests waiting 30 minutes after seeing lightning or hearing thunder before resuming outdoor activity.

As the Italians say: "Se puoi vederlo (fulmine) sbrigati, se puoi sentirlo (tuono) fuggi!" or in English, "if you can see it (lightning)...hurry up; if you can hear it (thunder)...run away!)"

Editor's note: Michela Delcol, 31st Aerospace Medicine Squadron language specialist, contributed to this report.