Thunderstorms are impressive displays of the power of nature. However, they are also extremely dangerous.
On average, according to NOAA, lightning claims the lives of 47 people every year in the US and seriously injures hundreds more. To date in 2018, lightning has killed 16 people across eight states. The most recent victim was struck this Saturday at Sunken Meadows State Park on Long Island, NY. Local officials say the man was sheltering under a tree during an early evening storm.
Lightning comes in variety of forms, but the cloud to ground variety is the most threatening to people. A typical bolt carries a current of about 300 million volts and can heat the air around it to 50,000°F. That is five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
This type of lightning, NOAA says, strikes the US about 25 million times a year. However, 70% of lightning fatalities occur during the summer months. The season marks not only the peak of thunderstorm activity in the US, but also the time of year when people spend more time outdoors.
Top ten activities that contributed the most to lightning deaths in the US, 2006-2017. Credit: NWS
According to a NWS report on lightning deaths in the US from 2006 to 2017, the vast majority of victims were men engaged in an outdoor leisure activity. Listing a variety of different pastimes at the time they were struck, fishing topped the list as the most deadly. It accounted for nearly 10% of the lightning fatalities during that period.
To avoid becoming a statistic, follow the advice of the NWS – “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
As a thunderstorm moves into an area, lightning illuminates the sky followed by rumbles of thunder. Using this sequence of events and applying some simple math, you can estimate how far away the storm is.
Since lightning travels at approximately the speed of light – 186,000 miles per second – you see it almost instantly. Thunder, on the other hand, travels at the speed of sound – about one mile in five seconds. These different rates of travel allow you to estimate the distance between yourself and the lightning.
To do this, count the seconds between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing the clap of thunder. Divide that number by five and you will know how far away the lightning is. For example, if you count fifteen seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder, the lightning is about three miles away.
But, remember, if you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike. So, as NOAA recommends, “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
Cloud to ground lightning strike. Credit: NWS
Summer vacation season is in full swing across the US. As millions of people head to beaches to have fun and beat the heat, it is important to remember that the ocean is a dynamic environment that can pose a number of hazards for swimmers. Chief among these are rip currents.
Rip currents are fast, localized channels of water moving away from the shoreline. According to NOAA, they are a result of “complex interactions between waves, currents, water levels and nearshore bathymetry.” They can form in several different ways on any beach with breaking waves. That said, they are typically found at breaks in sandbars and along permanent structures that extend out into the water such as jetties or piers.
Moving at speeds up to 8 feet per second – which is faster than an Olympic swimmer – rip currents can easily drag unsuspecting swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea. While they will not pull anyone underwater, they can cause fatigue and panic. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents are responsible for 80% of all surf zone rescues. Nationally, they cause more than one hundred deaths every year.
To spot a rip current, look for a gap in the breaking waves. This is where the water is forcing its way back out to sea. The area also usually appears murky and darker than the surrounding water. On guarded beaches, red flags indicate hazardous conditions for swimmers.
If caught in a rip current, the Red Cross recommends not trying to swim against it. Instead, they say to swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Once free, you can start swimming back toward the beach.
For more information on beach safety, visit: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/water-safety/beach-safety
Today is the first day of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Although one named storm, Alberto, already formed this year, the season officially runs from June 1 to November 30.
Since 1950, each tropical storm or hurricane to form in the Atlantic has been given a unique name. They come from a set of six rotating lists produced by the World Meteorological Organization. A name is retired only when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage. Some notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Harvey, Irma, Irene, Katrina, Maria, and Sandy. The names for this year’s storms are listed below.
The number of hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic basin varies from year to year. For 2018, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting an average to above average season.
Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In this country, we are most impacted by the Atlantic hurricane season, which affects the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. It runs from June 1 through November 30.
Overall, NOAA predicts a 70% likelihood of ten to sixteen named storms forming this season, of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes. An average season produces twelve named storms, including six hurricanes and three that become major hurricanes. A major hurricane is one that is rated category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
This outlook, according to NOAA, is based on the possibility of the development of a weak El Niño and near-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic. El Niño conditions in the Pacific tend to cause increased wind shear in the Atlantic, which suppresses tropical development in that basin.
Last year, 2017, was the most active Atlantic Hurricane season in more than a decade. It produced seventeen named storms, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But regardless of the number of storms that actually form this year, it is important to remember that it only takes one land-falling system in your community to make it an impactful season.
Severe weather, the type that can cause property damage and loss of life, can take a variety of forms depending on season and location. But during spring and summer in the northeastern United States, it usually takes the shape of an intense thunderstorm. In addition to thunder and lightning, these storms produce strong winds, heavy rain, hail, and the possibility of a downburst or tornado. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between the various alerts issued by the National Weather Service. They include advisories, watches, and warnings.
- Advisory: Issued when significant, but not necessarily hazardous, weather conditions are likely to occur. Residents should exercise caution.
- Watch: Issued when dangerous weather conditions are possible over the next several hours. They generally cover a large geographic area. Residents should be prepared to take action.
- Warning: Issued when dangerous weather is imminent or already occurring. They cover a smaller, more specific geographic area. Residents should take action immediately.
It is no secret that heavy rain can cause flooding. However, it can be surprising to learn how little water is required to create significant impacts.
As anyone who carries a water bottle knows, water is heavy. In fact, just one cubic foot of fresh water weighs 62.4lbs (28.3kg). Multiplied many times over, raging floodwater can carry away or destroy most things in its path. Moving at just 4-mph, water has enough force to cause structural damage to an average home.
Flowing floodwaters can also pose a danger when hiking or driving. According to NOAA, it only takes six inches of fast moving water to knock a person off their feet. Twelve inches of water can sweep a small car off the road and eighteen to twenty-four inches can float most large vans and SUVs.
Since it is impossible to know how deep water is just by looking at it, it is best to err on the side of caution. As the saying goes, “Turn around, don’t drown!”
The winter season can produce a number of different types of storms. One of these is a nor’easter.
These intense systems generally affect the east coast of the United States from the mid-Atlantic to New England. They traditionally develop when a strong area of low pressure to the south moves up the coast and meets cold air pushing down from Canada. With a plentiful supply of moisture from the Atlantic, these storms are notorious for producing copious amount of precipitation. The exact type – rain or snow – depends on the temperature at the time of the storm. They are also known for their strong onshore winds that can cause coastal flooding and beach erosion.
Spinning counterclockwise, these storms take their name from the steady northeasterly wind they produce.
The winter season can produce a number of different types of storms. One of these is an Alberta Clipper.
These systems originate in western Canada, on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains. As Pacific air spills downslope, an area of low pressure develops. From there, it gets caught up in the jet stream and moves to the southeast across the US. Traveling over land, these systems lack a significant source of moisture and generally do not produce much snow- usually around 1 to 3 inches. However, they are known for their strong winds and bitterly cold temperatures.
This type of quick-hitting storm takes its name not only from its place of origin near Alberta, Canada but also from the clipper ships of the 19th century – the fastest ships of the time.
When winter rolls around, I am often reminded of the old Scandinavian saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.”
Since the weather is going to do whatever it is going to do, it is important to be prepared for anything that Mother Nature throws your way. In winter, that means cold temperatures.
Extreme cold causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be generated. Prolonged exposure, according to the CDC, can cause serious health problems such as hypothermia and frostbite.
To stay safe this winter, remember to bundle up in layers and wear hats and gloves to minimize the loss of body heat.