Weather and Lightning Safety Outdoors

Foggy morning by Bill Campbell.

I’m writing this for all those outdoor photographers out there who want more information about weather and safety while we are out shooting. But much of this applies to anyone who ventures outside during possible inclement weather. As outdoor photographers (this might even include portrait or wedding or commercial photographers when they are outside), we always want to know what to expect. In my previous blog I talked about iPhone apps, which give us Sun position, moon position, tide charts and more. These are important, but what’s the weather going to be?

Before smart phones, we were usually glued to the Weather Channel on TV, then the Weather Channel on the Internet. Now with smart phone apps, we can carry all that information with us on our phone. I really would like to have the radar built into my GPS screen on my Toyota 4Runner, but maybe the next one I buy.

So, to get the most up to date information, where do you go? The Weather Channel has an App for the iPhone that comes loaded on the iPhone in conjunction with Yahoo!. It’s ok, for a start, but there are better apps out there. My favorite is My-Cast by Garmin. It gives great choices for maps, including Radar that is not static and updates every 15 minutes. It gives up weather alerts as soon as they come from the NWS. AND, most importantly for safety, it has lightning strikes update every minute.

So, with My-Cast you can look at the forecast, see the radar for approaching rain or other events, look at current conditions including temperature, wind speed, humidity, dewpoint and barometric pressure. How does dewpoint help? Well, if you’re looking for fog to shoot, this can give you some indication whether or not fog will be present. How? Fog happens when the air temperature falls to or below the Dewpoint. This morning I went down to the lake knowing that fog would be over the lake as the Dewpoint was 39° and the temperature was 38°. Sure enough, fog over the lake.

Paddling by Bill Campbell.

As far as safety, the Lightning Strike indicator can be life saving. Have you ever heard the saying “a bolt out of the blue”? Well, that came from lightning striking even when there is blue sky. Jerry Monkman told me about a surfer on the coast of NH (first, until I knew Jerry, I didn’t know that NH had a coast and, second, aren’t most surfers, like, in California or Hawaii?) was struck by lightning while surfing with blue sky overhead, but a storm further inland. Lightning can strike up 10 miles or more away from the storm that generates it. Thunder, on the other hand, can usually only be heard 6-8 miles away. So if you hear thunder, you definitely should take cover.

So, safety tip of the day for all you outdoors enthusiasts, “If you see it, flee it (Lightning) and if you hear it, clear it (hearing thunder means get off the field or to safety.)

How do you keep safe if you can’t get away?

  1. Stay away from any bodies of water.
  2. NEVER stand under an isolated tree.
  3. Stay away from tall trees – keep twice as far from the tall tree as it is tall.
  4. Avoid being the tallest object around – but don’t lie down on the ground, squat. If you can put an insulating pad under you to stand on, it might help.
  5. Stay away from natural lightning rods—Towers, tall trees, telephone poles, metal objects.
  6. If you are in a group, spread out with 50 feet in between each person. This possibly prevents multiple people in a group being affect by a single strike.

What do you do if someone in your group is struck by lightning?

  1. It is ok to touch them; they don’t carry any residual electric charge.
  2. Check to see if they are breathing and their heart is beating.
  3. Start CPR if needed. Sometimes the heart will start back to beating on its own before the person starts breathing on their own.
  4. If a person is talking, moving, etc, they probably will be ok, move on to the person who is not breathing and heart is not beating. We call this Reverse Triage in wilderness medicine. Usually in multiple casualties, you attend to those who DON’T appear dead.
  5. Get help, call 911 if possible. Anyone struck by lightning, even if they are walking and talking, needs to go to the ER to be checked out.

For more information on lightning safety for the outdoors, go to the NOLS site.

Bill teaches Wilderness First Aid for Photographers as part of his experience as an ER doctor for 20 years and his activities in the wilderness spanning 35 years.


One Response to “Weather and Lightning Safety Outdoors”

  1. Bill,

    Excellent advice and very pertinent for this time of year. A few years ago an excellent and well known local photographer was killed by a lightning strike when he was caught in a quick thunderstorm while above timberline on Pikes Peak. In fact, this area of Colorado has one of the highest rates of strikes in the country. Since we get many tourists who are anxious to take home photos of the Peak, Garden of the Gods and other icons, awareness of the danger is mandatory. Golfers are another group that are at high risk: those raised 3-irons and metal studded shoes can be great conductors!

    Jim Hamilton
    Colorado Springs

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