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June 30, 2014: The Lightning Crouch

John Jensenius, NWS lightning Safety Service Expertby John Jensenius, Lightning Safety Specialist, National Weather Service, NOAA

During the past few weeks, questions have surfaced about the National Weather Service's recommendations concerning the lightning crouch. The National Weather Service stopped recommending the crouch in 2008. Why? The National Weather Service recommendations are based on providing a significant level of safety. 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.

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." Our recommendations include:

  • 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.

Promoting the crouch gives people the false impression that crouching will provide safety. Even to promote the crouch as a last resort when a person's hair stands on end gives people the impression that they will get a warning sign or that there is something that they can do in that situation which would prevent them from being struck.

These beliefs could cause people to become apathetic and not seek a safe shelter before the lightning threat becomes significant.

So...what do you do when _____(fill in the blank)_____ and you can't get to a safe place? (I get this question all the time from the media and public.) My response typically includes one or more of the following.

1. There is no safe place outside in a thunderstorm. NOAA's recommendations are based on safety. If you can't get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle, you can't be safe.

2. 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.

Specifically, for the question of the "hair standing on end," I point out that there is nothing they can do to keep from being struck and possibly killed. It is only a matter of luck. At that point, I would recommend that they run as fast as you can to get to a safer location. While this may not protect them from a discharge from the current charge build up, getting to a safer place may protect them from subsequent lightning strikes.


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