KZN - a lightning magnet

PHOTO:  Lighting is dangerous and people should seek shelter when thunderstoms start.
PHOTO: Lighting is dangerous and people should seek shelter when thunderstoms start.

KWAZULU-NATAL is a magnet for lightning with rural areas deemed the highest risk, according to experts.

University of KwaZulu-Natal agrometeorology lecturer Dr Alistair Clulow said that storms occurred mostly in mountainous areas where there was an abundance of minerals such as dolerite-rich rocks.

“People living in rural areas are most affected, especially those living in poorly constructed houses that attract lightning, but cannot conduct it.

“Thatch roofs and mud walls attract lightning because they trap water. They do not conduct lightning well so the lightning then strikes the person in the house and travels through their body.”

SA Weather Service climate information manager Elsa de Jager said Mpumalanga, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal had the greatest number of lightning storms with the Amajuba and Zululand district municipalities recording the highest in KZN.

“These provinces receive on average the highest number of lightning flashes per square kilometre per year, between 10 and 15 lightning flashes per square kilometre per annum,” she said.

Once the lightning strikes the ground, it creates an electrical surge that travels through the ground over a distance of between 30 and 50 metres. On Friday, one child died and five others were injured when they were struck by lightning while playing soccer in Howick West.

Netcare 911 spokesperson Chris Botha said eports indicated that the children were between the ages of 10 and 12. “The children were found on the ground. Tragically a 12-year-old boy died at the scene due to the extensive injuries he sustained,” said Botha.

In 2014 more than 20 people died from lightning strikes.

In February, 11 boys were struck while playing soccer in Mthonjaneni, near Eshowe. Two died and three critically injured. In October two separate lightning strikes in Harding killed two women and injured two more. In September two sisters were struck and killed by lightning on their way home from a political meeting in Wartburg.

Clulow said lightning struck people because the human body is made up of 70% water and makes a good conductor for lightning to travel through.

“To avoid the full force of a ground surge, stand on one leg or crouch with your head on your knees and fingers on the floor as the lightning will be unable to travel through you. If you cannot get to cover during a storm, your next best option is to crouch,” he said.

KZN Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said every year they embarked on a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of lightning storms.

“We continue to roll out lighting conductors and urge those who can afford to purchase them from various hardware stores in our province,” said Mayisela.

“This is not a permanent solution, but it is one of our contributions as the department to minimise incidents of our people dying as a result of lightning.”

Clulow said there were lightning detection systems that could be set up and prevent many deaths. The detector records strikes from 32km away, in real time, and can tell how close the lightning is. The system is linked to warning lights and a siren. When the lightning gets dangerously close, the red light comes on and an alarm goes off for the residents to hear. He said the system, although expensive, was a good investment.

“With the number of deaths and subsequent damage, the costs run into millions which could be prevented with the detection system,” he said.

What you need to know about lightning
• Outside is never safe when thunderstorms are in the area.

• If you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.

• When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter, a substantial building or inside an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle.

Indoor lightning safety tips
• Stay off any electrical equipment that puts you in direct contact with electricity.

• Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths, and faucets.

• Stay away from windows and doors, and off porches.
• Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls. - South African Weather Service.

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