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What it feels like to be struck by lightning

In this article, Jason Marlin describes what it felt like to be hit by a direct lightning strike.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my studio office—basically a converted garage—while a thunderstorm brewed outside. After wrapping up a conference call with some of Ars’ finest, I was getting ready to dive back into work when the storm really picked up. “Ahhhh,” I thought as I leaned back in my chair to stare out at the strange greenish light against a purple-clouded backdrop. “So beautiful!”

At that moment—and this part is a little foggy—a bright arc of electricity shot through the window and directly into my chest. I’m not sure whether the arc originated from the sky or the ground, but it knocked me out of my chair. I hit the concrete floor and bounced back up to my feet, which were shuffling at top speed into a bookshelf. I remember thinking, “OK, going to die now. Do not fall down. Do not pass out.”

Pretty gripping reading. That’s as close as I want to get to being hit by lightning.

Kyle Hill discusses some of the common myths associated with lightning. One of them is that wearing shows, especially with rubber soles, helps prevent being struck. Hill says this is likely false.

[I]f lightning has burned its way through a mile or more of air (which is a superb insulator), it is hardly logical to believe that a few millimeters of any insulating material will be protective.

I think that is the wrong way to look at this. My understanding is that electricity, like water, chooses the easiest path and given the choice between two pathways, one of which has even a slightly greater resistance than the neighboring one, lightning will choose the lower resistance one. It is not that it the rubber insulates you and stops the lightning in its tracks but that it makes the pathway through your body less attractive than the alternatives. That is the purpose of lightning rods on tall buildings, to provide a low-resistance pathway that will intercept and channel the high currents safely to ground.

It is like the story about two hikers who confront a bear. One of the hikers stops to put on his running shoes. The other asks him whether he really thinks that it will help him outrun the bear, to which he replies that he doesn’t need to run faster than the bear, all he needs to be able to do is outrun the other person.

Comments

  1. eigenperson says

    I don’t think your analysis of lightning strikes and shoes is correct. People do get struck by lightning while wearing shoes, and cars (with rubber tires) get struck even though there are grounded metal lampposts nearby. A tall tree (high resistance) will be struck by lightning in preference to a short metal fencepost (low resistance).

    This is because the place at which lightning reaches the ground is determined primarily by the ionized channels in the air. The tree is taller and the streamer from the tree is likely to reach the leader before the streamer from the fencepost.

    If you are standing outside in a lightning storm and the ionized channel makes contact with your head, that is the lowest-resistance path. It doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing shoes or not. Even if there is a metal pole just a meter away, the leader -> head -> body -> feet -> shoes -> ground pathway has a much lower resistance than the leader -> 1 meter of non-ionized air -> metal pole -> ground. Of course, if you happen to be leaning on your aluminum umbrella at the time, the ionized air -> head -> body -> hand -> umbrella -> ground pathway has an even lower resistance, but this doesn’t save you.

    This basically means that shoes don’t help, unless you are so close to a conductive object that the current can more easily jump from you to that object than it can flow through your shoes. My understanding is that emergency responders ask about shoes because if lightning exits through shoes (which is the most likely place), they may melt and cause nasty burns.

    In a building with a lightning rod, there is no guarantee that the lightning will strike the rod. Allegedly the rods send up streamers very effectively, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that this matters. The main thing seems to be that the rod is the tallest part of the building.

  2. eigenperson says

    Of course, there is one circumstance where it does matter whether or not you’re wearing shoes. If lightning strikes near you, it could create a potential difference between the ground under your left foot and the ground under your right foot. If that difference is more than a few volts, you will want to be wearing shoes. (Cows are regularly killed by ground currents in lightning storms — they are much better conductors than the ground and there is a huge distance between their forelegs and hind legs.)

    So the shoes won’t prevent you from getting hit, but they might help you if something near you gets hit.

  3. Cuttlefish says

    I’ve known four people hit by lightning. Three lived through it (two, more than once). None have any recollection of the actual “what it feels like”, but are amnesic of the events just before and after. At least one tests for some pretty significant cognitive deficits post-strike (the others have not been tested, to my knowledge).

    All in all, I stay indoors during thunderstorms now.

  4. Mano Singham says

    You know four people struck by lightning? Some more than once? I have yet to meet even one which means that you must live in a much more densely populated lightning prone area than I do.

  5. says

    On a side note, I like the bear analogy. I explained to my class once how evolution works like that. They were having a hard time understanding how, for instance, gazelles evolved to be faster than lions if there was ever a time they were slower. More or less a “what nudged them in the direction of speed?” question. So I reminded them I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you. Well, gazelles don’t have to outrun lions, they just have to outrun other gazelles. That they can outrun lions now is just a bonus.

  6. Hamilton Jacobi says

    I got hit by lightning once, a little over a year ago. I think the main lightning strike was located near me and I only caught some of the peripheral current. No burns, but it gave me a jolt and knocked me off my feet — the lightning caused a momentary loss of muscle control and gravity did the rest. It was quite exhilarating to realize I had survived it with no damage, but I would not want to repeat the experience.

  7. Bhavik says

    I recently did a course on Lightning Protection and earthing/grounding and in the course there were two main technical points. The first was getting struck in the first place, which is very much playing the probabilities. Lightning flashes each contain up to 20 individual strikes and each is not necessarily in the same place. Strikes can be very distant to each other even from the same flash.
    The second technical point was about ‘body current’ which is about how much current passes through the heart when you are struck. The point of the course was to design operational sites to limit body current to below the threshold for fibrillation. Its at this point that shoes and other protective equipment becomes important because they reduce body current. The ground resistance is also quite an important parameter and standing on wet concrete is quite unfavourable.

  8. neeroc says

    My mother was struck by lightening ages ago at our cottage. We were sitting in the cottage and saw the incredible flash (it was right outside the window she was at the stairs to the deck). I don’t remember sound (but I also know that I don’t remember sounds in times of stress – I don’t remember the beeping horn or crash of a car accident I was in). The power was knocked out to the cottage and she had a burn on her hand and her foot, which was in a rubber soled shoe. If she didn’t get hit directly, she was a conduct between a metal handle and the ground. She really doesn’t remember anything, and described it as an out of body experience…which I put up to her brain getting zapped. *g*

  9. zanny101 says

    I wonder if anyone will actually remember the full experience of being struck by lightning (I just hope it’s not me 0_0) anytime soon. Also, didn’t the ‘hiker and bear’ reference come from the movie Without a Paddle?

  10. Mano Singham says

    I don’t know where I first heard the hiker and the bear example. But I haven’t seen that film.

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