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Electrical storms

One in three million people are struck by lightning each year in the UK, with an average of five deaths. Lightning has a 30% fatality rate because the current can carry many millions of volts. Lightning will find the highest conductor first, such as a summit or pinnacle and takes the shortest route and ‘path of least resistance’ to the ground, finding the best conductor of electricity in the process, such as solid objects, metal and water.

Lightning strikeAt the first sign of an approaching lightning storm, the party on the hill should descend to a safer area. People walking on the fells will be at risk of being struck if they are the highest object in the area and especially if they are higher than the tree line. If caught on the hill during a thunderstorm, it's important not to shelter under trees, on ridges or in cave/mine entrances. Cave entrances and overhangs can be dangerous because they contain an ionic (positive) charge which attracts the negatively charged lightning.

safest shelter diagramHowever, a projection such as a pinnacle or post acts as a lightning conductor that services an area with a radius corresponding approximately to its own height. This means that the area within this circumference is a relatively safe place because the projection will deflect lightning strikes on itself.
The best advice is to wear waterproofs to prevent water contact with the skin and to squat close to the ground out in the open or in the lowest part of a dip or hollow in the ground away from trees, crags and ridges, or within the safe area of a projection. Insulate yourself using a rucksack or sleeping mat, with hands on knees and head tucked between them. Do not lie down on the ground and try not to touch the ground with any part of the body.

Remove all metal objects such as jewellery, walking poles, tent pegs, climbing kit and mobile phones to a spot 5 – 10 metres away. These items may not significantly increase the risk of attracting a lightening strike but may cause burns if in contact with the skin if a strike is close. If you feel your hair stand on end, drop to the above position immediately.

Avoid abseiling and climbing during a descent in a storm because wet rope makes an excellent conductor. It has been known for lightning to travel down wet caving rope, electrocuting the caver many metres underground.

A partial strike, either through induction from a nearby conductor, or through the ground as the earth currents dissipate outwards, is more common than a direct strike. The actual power of the strike is a combination of the current and the contact time. If someone is struck by lightning they often suffer severe burns. The strike also affects the heart, so check if they have a pulse.

In May 2010, the Daily Mail reported that four walkers in 3 separate parties on the Lake District fells were either struck by lightning or experienced alarming near misses during the same storm. The first fellwalker was struck at Grasmoor, and the effects of lightening strikes on people were also recorded at Crag Hill and Whiteless Pike within 35 minutes. None of the four casualties were seriously injured, but all were hospitalised.

The incident was described by a witness, “I was across the valley on Red Pike and witnessed the storm move in, it was quite frightening the speed it descended and enveloped the mountains and anyone out on them. No thunder or lighting had been forecast or cloud that low. The group of 6 were on the ridge of Whiteless pike which is very exposed with no hiding place.”

Article, illustration and photo by Jess Stam

• Understanding the mountain climate by Dr Caroline Langdon, www.mountain-rescue.org.uk
• http://www.mcofs.org.uk/lightning.asp
• http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1281838/Four-walkers-struck-lightning-35-MINUTES-amazing-Lake-District-coincidence.html
• http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5106510.stm
• http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/
• http://outdoors.caledonianmercury.com/2010/06/02/recent-lightning-strikes-not-bolts-from-blue/00897

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