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Welcome to the Greenwood.Net Curiosity Corner

Tips for summer sailing

May 25, 2018

Curiosity Corner
Dr. Jerry D. Wilson,
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Lander University

Question: My husband likes to fish. He and I argue frequently about the safety of being in a boat during a storm. He says lightning has never struck a boat in the water, be it a one-man fishing boat or the largest vessel ever made. Can you provide any information on this? (Asked by a concerned wife.)

Reply: Im not sure I want to get in the middle of a domestic dispute, but in the interest of science and lightning awareness, the wife is right. Ive done articles on the cause of lightning and the thunder follow-up, so I wont go into this aspect, but rather take a look at lightning safety and facts.

We all know that lightning is a big electrical discharge and that the release of energy gives rise to a thunderous sound. Lightning can strike most anywhere, causing fires (like those forest fires out west), property damage, and injuries and deaths. Many lightning victims had been walking in an open field, swimming, or boating prior to getting zapped. Other lightning victims were holding metal objects such as golf clubs, fishing rods, and umbrellas. But even when not holding a metal object, you can be struck.

Here are some lightning safety tips pertaining to fishing:
1. Check to see if the weather forecast is calling for thunderstorms. If so, watch for changing weather conditions in your area, and wait until the coast is clear before going out on the water.
2. Stay close to shore if storms are likely so you can get there quickly. Sound travels at about one-fifth mile per second. By counting the seconds after you see a lightning flash, you can estimate how far away the stroke was. For every five seconds you count, the lightning was about a mile away.
3. If you count less than five seconds, you should be on shore already.
4. If you cant get to shore, stay as low in the boat as possible, laying down fishing poles or anything else sticking up, including yourself. Hunker up in a ball and try not to contact any metal or water.

Also, and perhaps most importantly in a thunderstorm, dont seek shelter under a tree. Trees have about 20 percent moisture content and we humans have about 65 percent. This allows for good electrical conduction, so if lightning hits the top of a tall tree, you might be the final conductor. In many instances, the tree is heated so much that it explodes. Lightning strokes superheat the air to over 50,000 degrees F, so you can imagine what it does to the sap and moisture in a tree.

Here is some other lightning information you may find interesting:
There are some 2000 thunderstorms on the Earth at one time, producing some 100 lightning strokes to the ground each second. In the U.S., there are about 15-20 million ground strikes per year. (Lightning goes from cloud to cloud and intracloud too.)
On average, more people are killed by lightning than any other weather event. More than $2 billion in damages are caused by lightning in the U.S. every year.
Florida has twice as many lightning casualties (deaths and injuries combined) than any other state. Most lightning casualties occur in the afternoon two-thirds between noon and 4 p.m. Lightning reports reach their peak in July.
Lightning can strike twice in the same place. The Empire State Building is struck on the average 21-25 times per year. A U.S. Park Service Ranger, Ray Sullivan, is said to have been struck by lightning seven different times between 1942 and 1976. (Sounds like Ray had nine lives, and probably a frizzy hairdo.)
Santa Claus even gets into the act with his reindeer, Donner and Blitzen (thunder and lightning in German).

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): Always remember: youre unique, just like everyone else.

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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