Weather Service expert clarifies: The lightning “crouch” is not recommended


Lightning strikes within a mile from the Tidal Basin, June 25, 2014. (Kevin Ambrose)

In his blog post last week, Capital Weather Gang’s Don Lipman suggested the National Weather Service (NWS) had been inconsistent in comments and online materials about whether or not to crouch, as a last resort to lower the risk of getting struck by lightning. NWS lightning expert John Jensenius says it does not recommend the crouch and has not since 2008.  Indoor shelter (a hard-topped car or building) is the only safe option.

Jensenius published a blog post today to set the record straight:

The crouch simply doesn’t provide a significant level of protection. Whether you’re standing or in the crouch position, if a lightning channel approaches from directly overhead (or very nearly so), you’re very likely to be struck and either killed or injured by the lightning strike.

He stresses taking preventative steps to ensure you’re not caught outside in a storm is the single best thing you can take to avoid getting struck:

Rather than “what to do in a dangerous situation” the National Weather Service recommendations focus on “what to do so you don’t get into a dangerous situation,” and, “if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, how to get out of the dangerous situation.”

These are the action steps NWS recommends for staying clear of lightning:

Plan ahead. (that includes knowing where you’ll go for safety)
Listen to the forecast.
Cancel or postpone activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast.
Monitor weather conditions.
Take action early so you have time to get to a safe place.
Get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before threatening weather arrives.
If you hear thunder, get to the safe place immediately.

But what if you’re caught in a storm and you’re in the middle of nowhere with no shelter?

Here’s what Jensenius advises:

While there may be nothing you can do to lower your risk significantly, there are things you should avoid which would actually increase the risk of being struck. Those include:

Avoid open areas.
Don’t be or be near the tallest objects in the area.
Don’t shelter under tall or isolated trees.
In the woods, put as much distance between you and any tree.
If in a group, spread out so that you increase the chances for survivors who could come to the aid of any victims from a lightning strike.

Michael Utley, a lightning strike survivor who curates the Web site “StruckbyLightning.org“, described via email what he would do:

If caught outside (most incidents are within running distance of a car or house), I would keep moving to a safer location (away from water, taller isolated objects, metal fences, toward a low lying area, etc.). I would keep walking or running (all lightning comes from the ground up, so walking means only one foot on the ground at a time). If in a group, spread out so if someone is hit, others can give CPR. I don’t know if any of this would do any good, but at least I would be doing something.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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