Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lightning Safety Tips For Birders

by Catherine Greenleaf
(Reprinted with permission from The Bridge Weekly Sho-Case)

Birding has become a national pastime, with millions of Americans trekking through fields and woods with binoculars in search of birds on their Life List. But it's important to keep some safety tips in mind while outdoors, particularly when a thunderstorm develops.

Each year, the National Oceanic and Aviation Administration (NOAA) issues updated guidelines pertaining to lightning safety. In the last several decades, scientists have apparently underestimated the reach and power of lightning, and NOAA's outreach campaign aims to re-educate Americans about how to avoid lightning strikes, as well as what to do if someone is struck.

What has changed? For years, scientists have believed lightning could strike from a distance of up to 10 miles. However, after a group of ice fishermen on Sebago Lake in Maine were struck during the winter of 2014 from a storm 20 miles away, weather researchers have adjusted their theories.

According to John Jensenius, the Lightning Safety Specialist with the National Weather Service (NWS), a single bolt of lightning is five times hotter than the sun and travels down toward the earth at 300,000 miles per hour, packing a wallop of 300 million volts in a single flash.

"If you can hear thunder, then you can be struck," he said.

According to Jensenius, sometimes a person can take a direct hit, which is often fatal. Or in some instances, an individual can be struck by ground current, which was the case in the summer of 2013 in Gilmanton, N.H., when 23 Boy Scouts were hit while waiting out a storm seated at a metal table under a tarp in the woods. According to Associated Press reports, lightning struck a nearby tree and traveled 60 feet through the ground, purportedly coming up through the metal table and chairs. The Scouts exhibited spider web-shaped burns spread across their chests, arms and hands, and were rushed to local area hospitals.

Another change? Jensenius said he no longer advises people caught in a storm to crouch down on the ground. For years, NOAA had advised people to hunker down on the ground and shield their heads when they feel the hair on their arms stand up (a sign of an impending strike).

Jensenius said NOAA's outreach campaign has shifted from offering tips on what to do if you are outdoors during a storm, which can give a false sense of security, to the warning: "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors." Lightning strike deaths are most commonly due to people ignoring the sound of thunder until the storm is right on top of them and it is too late.

"There is absolutely no safe place outside during a thunderstorm," Jensenius said. His advice is if you are out birding and suddenly find yourself in the path of thunder and lightning: run like hell.

"Theoretically, you parked your car close by, and you should run for that car as quickly as you can. The storm will last longer than the 15 minutes it takes to get back to the safety of your car," he said.
Avoid moving through the highest area, and avoid trees.

If you're in a boat while observing birds, try to get to shore as quickly as possible and find protective cover. More and more lakefront property owners are posting special flags on their docks that are a signal you can safely tie in at their property and wait out the storm.

If you can't get to land, lie flat in the bottom of the boat, NOAA advised. Separate yourself as far away as possible from your cell phone and drop anchor. Jensenius said to make sure you are wearing a lifejacket, as a lightning bolt can knock you unconscious and throw you out of the boat. "Far better to be found floating, than to be found drowned," he said.

According to NOAA, it is important to remember the 30/30 rule: If the time delay between the sight of lightning and the sound of thunder is less then 30 seconds, find shelter or take protective action immediately, and wait at least 30 minutes after the last bolt of lightning or sound of thunder before leaving that protection. Fifty percent of strikes occur after the storm has passed overhead, and people have come outside believing it was safe, according to NOAA.

Tips for birders to stay safe from lightning:

1) Always bird with a buddy.
2) Check the weather forecast before heading out and stay aware of any approaching storms.
3) Tell someone where you are headed and when you will be back.
4) Stay in marked areas and approved paths.
5) Bring your cell phone, in case you need to call 911.
6) Keep a first aid kit in your car.

If the worst happens, know that you can touch a lightning strike victim without getting zapped yourself (this is not true in the case of electrocution), according to NOAA. If the victim's heart is not beating, you can save his or her life by performing CPR. If the victim's heart is beating but they are not breathing, emergency mouth breathing can save his or her life.

Copyright 2015