The weather in the mountains can change dramatically. It doesn’t take long for a nice sunny day to turn into a nightmarish thunderstorm. Lightning as a phenomenon is not a household topic, but it claims more lives a year than floods, landslides, and cyclones. Data from the Indian Meteorological Department shows over 49,000 fatalities in the past two decades. The stakes are higher, especially when you are out in the wild, where emergency evacuations might not always be possible. “Planning ahead and preventing being caught in a storm is the best way to be safe from it,” says Arjun Majumdar, founder of IndiaHikes. This guide will help you to do just that.
What is lightning?
The definition of lightning has stayed the same since we studied it at school. It is a bright flash of electricity produced by thunderclouds. “You can recognise approaching thunderstorms by the dark colour of the clouds, but it is not impossible for a seemingly safe white cloud to discharge lightning too,” says Nithyam Nachappa, a senior Trek Leader at IndiaHikes. You can recognise these clouds from their large, multilayered, and thick size. It is an unpredictable phenomenon that we can do little about in the wild.
What are the dangers of lightning?
I do not wish to scare you in this section. Many a time, we are not serious about this phenomenon because we have not experienced it. Getting directly hit by lightning is not very common. Most lightning-related injuries come as a result of receiving the ground currents as it dissipates from the object that has been hit.
Rare direct strikes are often fatal, and there is not much you can do about it. However, in cases of being struck by ground current, temporary paralysis, rupture of eardrums, confusion, disorientation, amnesia, temporary deafness, or blindness are the possible symptoms.
Lightning injuries can harm you physically as well as mentally. “The psychological trauma one has in the aftermath of a lightning strike can be far more serious than physical harm,” says Sharwari Brahme, Head of Green Trails at IndiaHikes. Sharwari was struck twice by lightning on her recent trek to Kuari Pass and is currently recovering from it. She says it is similar to someone fearing deep water after one has experienced drowning. One can take the help of therapy from a sports psychologist to overcome the lingering fear.
How do you prevent getting hit by lightning?
Prevention is better than cure is an overused phrase, but this is one mantra that you have to remember while trekking in adverse conditions. Our trek leaders say getting hit by lightning is not common but it is only so because the team has prepared for any unforeseen scenarios. Here are some ways that you can do this if you are trekking solo or with a group of friends:
Rules for lightning safety before going out on a trek:
- Plan ahead by checking the local weather forecasts and patterns. The IMD website regularly gives updates about upcoming thunderstorms and areas more prone to lightning strikes.
- If trekking solo or with a group of friends, have an emergency backup plan you can follow. Make sure everyone in the group knows what to do in emergencies. Having a radio on yourself is ideal to get sudden warnings from the base camp.
What are the safety rules for lightning?
As mentioned above, the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. More so because of climate change. If you are caught in a sudden thunderstorm or see dark clouds approaching, get ready!
- The sound of thunder is a clear sign to seek shelter. It can be heard from 15 km away on calm days. Seek shelter immediately.
- Gauge which direction the clouds are coming from. Pay attention to the wind direction and cloud’s buildup.
- Know which structures are more prone to being hit by lightning and quickly get away from them on the first signs of thunder:
- A big exposed rock: People often consider big rocks safe because they think the rock will take the brunt of the lightning strike. However, side splash and ground current are equally dangerous. Hence a big rock is a no-go.
- Water bodies: Water is a great conductor of electricity regardless of its volume. Deep waters are dangerous, but you need to move away from small puddles on the trail too, especially if it is raining.
- Fences: Metal fences and long metal structures attract lightning.
- Huge trees: This is common knowledge for the shepherds. They never take shelter under the tallest tree. Because of its height, a tall tree is the first to get hit.
- Mountain tops, vast meadows, ridges, ledges and summits are dangerous places to be in. Any place that makes your body the highest structure is always dangerous.
- It is more likely that lightning may occur if the weather is very humid or it is raining or snowing.
- In case of thunderstorms, do not huddle with fellow trekkers or your group. The minimum distance you should maintain is 15-20 feet away from each other.
Quick tip: Flash-to-bang method
You can roughly calculate how far a lightning storm is from you by counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder and then dividing it by 5. Knowing this gives you the time to prepare and run to cover. A 5-second delay means the lightning is 1.6 km away from you. 15 seconds delay means 4.8 km. Any delay of less than 30 seconds means the lightning is close enough to be dangerous. Quickly use this time to find shelter or prepare accordingly.
What should you do when lightning strikes near you?
First of all, you must try your best to not put yourself in a situation where you have to practise the drills given below. But in the unprecedented event that you have no choice left, please remember these points:
- Run! Run to the nearest forest canopy that you can see. Uniform trees on low grounds are one of the safest places to be in the absence of solid structures.
- Do not take shelter under a tall or a standalone tree. There is a high chance of ground current dissipating from the tree if it gets hit.
- Remember to switch off your electronic devices and put them in your bag. You must be ready to throw them on the ground if lightning strikes near you.
- Try to take shelter in a deep cave. It is not a good idea to be in a small cave or an overhang.
- Remember that the human body is a good conductor of electricity too.
- If your backpack has metal frames, external or internal, put them on the ground. The same goes for trekking poles and anything metallic. This matters if you are at an exposed section like a summit, ridge or meadow.
- If in a group, maintain a 20-foot distance from each other at the least and sit in a circle in a lightning position. After every round of lightning strikes, remember to call each member and check if anyone is hit by it.
- Remember to maintain the lightning position for at least 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder. Lightning can strike you even after the storm has seemed to pass.
If you cannot get into safer terrain or a structure in time, you have to get into lightning position. The goal is to create the shortest connection that you can with the ground. Put your bag on the ground and squat on top of it. Raise your heels and make yourself as small as possible. Make sure that you place your heels in contact with each other. This is the best course of action that you can take.
5 lightning myths busted:
- Myth 1: It is unsafe to touch a lightning victim
Fact: The human body cannot store electricity. It is safe to touch a victim and provide them first-aid.
- Myth 2: Lightning never strikes the same place twice
Fact: Lightning is often observed to strike the same place twice. Especially the structures mentioned in this article, which are more prone to strikes.
- Myth 3: Lying flat on the ground protects you from being struck
Fact: Lightning position is the only way to go. Lying flat attracts ground current.
- Myth 4: You are safe from lightning if it is not raining and clouds aren’t directly above
Fact: Rain makes lightning strikes more common, but remember that the moisture in the air can act as a medium too. Also, there are cases of dry lightning claiming lives from miles away.
- Myth 5: Lightning cannot hit you if you are in a lightning position
- Fact: Lightning position does not guarantee complete safety from lightning. It is the last resort that you have. Before that, try seeking shelter in a structure or in a forest canopy.
In emergencies like this, your decision-making skills will be tested to their limits. A good amount of planning and precaution, along with your knowledge, experience, and training, are what you will rely on. But do not let your fear of lightning strike stop you from going out. Just make sure you have this knowledge before embarking on an adventure in the outdoors.