The Australian bush can be a dangerous place. Water can be scarce, there are tonnes of venomous creepy crawlies and the weather can hit both extremes of the thermometer. But there’s a hazard out there that many Aussies often forget, one that can sneak up from the horizon in an instant — lightning.
Lightning Safety In The Bush
Storms are serious business and for some they are even downright terrifying, but in the bush, grabbing your thunder-buddy and singing the thunder-buddy song might not be the smartest idea.
Here are a few tips on how to best avoid a lightning strike while hiking, climbing or doing whatever you love to do in the outdoors.
Where Does Lightning Strike?
Understanding lightning behaviour is the first step for avoiding a strike. The most important thing to understand about lightning behaviour is that it has the potential to strike anywhere, even on dead-flat ground, so you are never totally safe in the bush. There are some places though, that are more likely to cop a strike.
Lightning strikes occur when negatively charged particles from a cloud known as a ‘stepped leader’ meet a positively charged ‘upward leader’ from the ground. When these two paths meet, it creates a channel for lightning to strike. These leaders follow the path of least resistance.
To put it more simply, here are a few general rules to understand about where lightning likes to strike:
- Generally lightning strikes directly below a cumulonimbus (storm) cloud
- Lightning bolts are more likely to hit sharp, elevated terrain (mountains and ridges) due to their closeness to storm clouds
- They also tend to hit any tall features e.g. big trees, boat masts, tall shrubs in open areas
- Remember the higher and more prominent an object is, the greater the chance of a strike
- Long electrical conductors like metal wire fences, bridges and wet ropes attract lightning bolts
- Contrary to the popular myth lightning can strike the same place twice
How To Best Avoid A Strike
The lightning safety techniques outlined in this guide are ways to reduce the risk of a strike from a storm. Lightning can still strike anywhere. The most sure-fire way to avoid being struck is proper planning. However, these techniques are your best bet if things don’t really go to plan.
- Set turnaround times: A popular mountaineering adage is summit by 12, down by 2. Even when you aren’t summiting Everest it’s still important to remember. This is because storms generally develop in the afternoon. You should check weather forecasts and set turnaround times that will ensure that you are off exposed terrain before a storm hits. If you hear thunder you should turn around (you can hear thunder from about 15km away).
- Find safe terrain: If you hear thunder you should immediately seek low, rolling hills and avoid high terrain like peaks and ridges.
- Avoid cave entrances: If lightning strikes above a cave, the current can travel through the rock and ‘leap’ across the gap and into the ground below. If you are near the cave entrance, the lightning arc will more likely travel through you to the ground instead. You don’t want that. Trust me.
- Avoid trees: If you can’t, travel through a forest. Wide open ground with isolated trees offers a greater chance of being struck.
- Avoid long conductors: Don’t touch (duh). Wet, extended ropes should also be treated the same as most long conductors.
- Get Away From The Water: Kayakers or anyone in the water should get off the water as soon as they hear thunder.
- Adopt The Lightning Safety Position: You should stop searching for safe terrain once the storm is upon you and get in the lightning safety position* but if safer terrain is close you should opt for that. Spread your group out 15m apart to avoid multiple injuries and stay in the lightning position until the storm passes.
What Happens When Someone Is Struck?
So the worst has happened, you’ve covered all the lightning safety pointers, moved to the safest terrain and assumed the lightning position, but still someone has been struck because, you know, lightning can strike anywhere. So, what now? To understand the answer to this we must first understand how lightning can hurt us.
There are 3 main ways:
# 1 — Explosive force: When someone is struck by lightning their body is hit with a large amount of explosive force, this can result in body trauma such as fractures and soft tissue injuries.
# 2 — Electrical shock: This is the most dangerous effect a lightning strike can have. An electrical shock from a lightning strike can cause neuro-electrical damage. If the current from a strike travels through the brain or torso, it can stop a person’s heart and lungs and cause paralysis in any part of the nervous system.
# 3 — Burns: A victim can be burned from a lightning strike when the electricity that travels through the body is transformed into heat energy. The burn marks are linear and travel from head to toe. You can also be burnt from any metallic objects that are in contact with you (necklaces, rings, and piercings), as well as your clothing, catching fire.
What To Do If Someone Is Struck
When treating a lightning strike victim, the first and most important thing to consider is if they have a pulse and are breathing. If not consider the need for CPR or rescue breathing. Second priority should be an evaluation for head or spinal injuries and treat accordingly. I would highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid course to anyone setting off into the bush. Courses cover way more than just lightning strikes and the skills learned are invaluable in emergency situations.
Feature photo by @lukegardnerphotography