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Rudi Kiefer: Lightning a frequent killer, so heed thunder and head inside
Rudi Kiefer
In the past two years, several publications have listed the half-dozen most dangerous states when it comes to weather-related fatalities.

Happily, Georgia isn’t one of them. However, we’ve had our share of tragedies, and tornadoes remain the No. 1 killer in our state.

More frequent than a destructive tornado, though, is lightning. Ready Georgia, a government public information office (ready.ga.gov), quotes lightning as the second most dangerous weather hazard in our state.

As we’ve seen in the past two weeks, lightning storms are local, frequent and develop quickly. This is mostly due to the Bermuda High, a large air mass over the Atlantic Ocean near the U.S. Southeast. It forces ocean air downward and outward, funneling moisture into Georgia and neighboring states.

The resulting humidity is like a fully charged car battery. Connect both terminals by accident, and sparks fly. In the case of a thunderstorm, the moisture has massive amounts of heat energy stored in it. This energy is set free when air rises in one of those tall, dark clouds we see mostly during summer. The difference between electrical charges in the cloud and those in the ground enables, literally, a lightning-fast discharge that lasts maybe 1/1000 of a second.

But unlike the spark plugs in your car engine, which release a current near 20,000 volts, lightning reaches into hundreds of millions of volts.

Another comparison: standard household current, which can produce a serious zap when something goes wrong, averages 112 volts.

Any building provides reasonable protection from lightning, so the best prevention is in going indoors during a thunderstorm. Websites are full of advice about what to do when caught in the open: crouch down, avoid isolated trees, don’t lie down in a ditch.

But North Georgia isn’t Nevada. There’s no 50-mile distance to the nearest building, convenience store or other kind of shelter. The lightning victims of recent years weren’t far from possible locations of safety. It’s the desire to finish a round of golf, cut the grass, paint the roof soffits or other outdoor activities that puts people at risk. Even a car is safer than being out in the open, although driving in a lightning storm remains hazardous.

Heat and humidity this summer will bring us more lightning. The best advice is given on websites of both weather.gov and cdc.gov: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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