Severe Weather Awareness – Thunderstorms

This is the second post in a series about weather awareness. When taking part in any outdoor activity you should always keep an eye on the weather because conditions can change rapidly. I have been caught in a canoe during a squall on a lake and do not care to repeat the experience. The weather went from clear and calm to a thunderstorm in what seemed to be a matter of minutes. We ignored the signs because the fish were biting and almost got dumped into the lake by the wind. The waves were so high we couldn’t paddle into the wind to get back to our vehicle. We ended up getting to shore about 3/4 of a mile from the truck at someone’s camp dock. They gave us a ride to the truck and where we packed up the gear and called it a day. This story ended well but it could have been much worse had the canoe tipped over. It pays to keep an eye on the weather and not ignore the warning signs of a storm moving into your area. This information is courtesy of the National Weather Service.


Summertime is a good time for outdoor recreational activities in New England; it is also the time of the year when thunderstorms are most likely. Thunderstorms can be beautiful, but they also can be deadly. While many people think they are aware of the dangers of thunderstorms and lightning, the vast majority are not.

There are three basic ingredients needed for the formation of a thunderstorm. They include low-level moisture, an unstable atmosphere, and a trigger (a source of lift).

Low-level moisture: This moisture is needed for cloud formation, growth, and the development of precipitation within the cloud.

Unstable atmosphere: An unstable atmosphere allows warm, moist air near the ground to rise rapidly to higher levels in the atmosphere where temperatures are below freezing. An unstable atmosphere also allows air at higher levels in the atmosphere to sink to the ground level rapidly, bringing stronger winds from the higher levels to the ground.

A trigger: Something to set the atmosphere in motion.

All three ingredients contribute to the formation of a thunderstorm. In fact, as the magnitudes of these ingredients increase, so do the chances that a thunderstorms could become severe.

In the summertime, listen to the latest forecast and learn to recognize the signs that often precede thunderstorm development.

Warm muggy air is a sign that ample low-level moisture is available for thunderstorm development. Towering cumulus clouds indicate an atmosphere that is, or is becoming, unstable. And, the trigger could be continued heating from the sun; an approaching front or sea breeze front; or a cooling of the upper atmosphere.

All thunderstorms go through various stages of growth and development. As a thunderstorm cloud continues to grow, snow and ice begin to form in the middle and higher levels of the cloud where temperatures are below freezing, and electrical charges start to build up within the cloud. Negative electrical charges near the middle of the thunderstorm cloud cause positive charges to build up on the ground under and near the thunderstorm. Finally, when the difference between these charges becomes too great, a giant atmospheric spark we call lightning occurs.

Lightning is an underrated killer, usually claiming its victims one at a time. Lightning also leaves many victims with life-long serious injuries. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from the side of the thunderstorm cloud. In fact, many lightning victims are struck before the rain arrives or after the rain has ended. Many victims also report that at least a portion of the sky was blue when they were struck. During the past 10 years, Maine has had 4 lightning fatalities while New Hampshire has not had any. Although Maine has less lightning than most states east of the Rocky Mountains, Maine ranks 4th highest in the country in terms of lightning deaths per capita for the past 10 years.

This summer, the national weather service will participate in a nationwide awareness campaign to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from lightning. Although more information on lightning and lightning safety will be provided during lightning safety awareness week that will be during the week of June 21st-27th, here are some basic tips to help keep you and your family safe this summer.

While inside a home or building

1) Avoid any contact with electrical or electronic equipment or cords that are plugged into the electrical system.

2) Avoid any contact with corded phones.

3) Avoid any contact with the plumbing system. Do not wash your hands, do not wash the dishes, do not take a shower, or do not do laundry.

4) Do not stand next to a concrete wall and do not lie on a concrete floor.

5) Stay away from windows, outside doorways, and porches.

Tips while outdoors

1) There is no safe place outside in a thunderstorm. To be safe, you must get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle.

2) Plan outside activities so that you minimize the risk of being caught outside in a thunderstorm.

3) If you hear thunder, move inside a safe shelter immediately. Generally, if you can hear the thunder, you’re within striking distance of the storm.

4) If the sky looks threatening, move inside immediately. Don’t wait for the first flash of lightning. It could occur anywhere under or near the storm.

5) Stay inside a safe shelter for at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder was heard. Many lightning victims are struck after the worst part of the storm has passed.

Remember, when it comes to thunderstorm safety, it’s your own actions that will determine your personal risk of being killed or seriously injured by the hazards that accompany thunderstorms.

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