‘Separate facts from myths’

2015-02-17 00:00

LIGHTNING can strike twice in the same place, and lying flat on the ground during a storm does not reduce your chances of being struck, said South African Weather Service scientist Morné Gijben.

Gijben, who was commenting ­following 16 deaths by lightning strikes in KwaZulu-Natal in just two weeks, said rural communities need more ­education to dispel myths about the natural phenomenon.

In a recent incident, nine people were killed by lightning in Nongoma at the weekend.

It was reported that the dead were participating in a traditional ceremony in a rondavel with a corrugated iron roof in the Mthonjaneni area when a bolt of lightning struck.

Gijben believes that serious safety measures need to be taken when ­lightning occurs.

He cautioned people to separate the facts from the myths.

“Don’t believe myths like lightning never strikes the same place twice, ­because it does, especially if it is a pointy, tall object.

“Or, if people tell you that it is not safe to touch someone who was struck by lightning because you will be electrocuted.

“Lightning victims carry no electrical charge and are safe to touch, but you must perform CPR immediately on the victim,” said the scientist.

Lying on the floor when lightning strikes could also be dangerous.

“By lying flat on the ground, you ­increase the chances of being affected by the ground current,” said Gijben.

He said lightning often strikes up to 16 km away from the centre of the storm, far away from the rain or ­thunderstorm cloud.

“Rubber does not protect you from forceful electrical current, and covering your mirror during the lightning storm is also just a myth,” said Gijben.

How lightning strikes occur:

Explaining how lightning strikes, ­Gijben said ice and graupel particles collide in a cloud.

“These collisions result in electrons being sheared off the ice particles and collect on the graupel particles. The ice particles become positively charged, while the graupel particles become ­negatively charged,” said Gijben.

He said the lighter ice particles get blown towards the upper part of the cloud, while the heavier graupel ­particles fall towards the lower parts.

“Below the storm base, charge begins to pool within the surface of the Earth. As the differences in charges continue to increase, charged particles rise up taller objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles.

“A channel of charge, called a stepped leader, will descend from the bottom of the storm cloud towards the ground. As this stepped leader approaches the ground, charge collects in the ground and in objects on the ground,” he said.

This charge on the ground and in ­objects reaches out to the approaching charge from the storm cloud with its own channel, called a streamer.

“When these two channels connect, it allows much greater current to move from the Earth back up the leader into the cloud. This is known as the return stroke and is the lightning we see,” ­explained Gijben.

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