Managing Lightning Risk
See trip report that led me to research and write this series of essays (A Shocking Day on Arapahoe Peak)
Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. Once generally feared as a weapon of the gods or God, scientists now tell us lightning is just a gigantic spark of static electricity that will kill or maim us just the same. People once avoided lightning above all threats to life due to the heavenly implications of being a target. When we high peaks adventurers play in the high, exposed places where lightning lives most often, we should still trespass with trepidation and calculated respect.
Lightning is known to be a discharge of static electricity that can heat the air to temperatures of approximately 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and contain 100 million electrical volts. And through lightning detection systems in the U.S., lightning is known to strike the ground approximately 25 million times each year resulting in roughly 450,000 property insurance claims. So it is a surprise to find only 500-1000 injuries and 100 deaths are caused by lightning each year. Certainly we’d rather have zero injuries and deaths, but 1,000 is a tiny number compared to the 3 million injuries caused by auto accidents. Is lightning not a threat?
A threat avoided is still a threat. The global injury rate for lightning is estimated to be 10x the U.S. rate. I believe the low number of lightning strikes affecting people is based on four factors: people make a small target, humans like to stay out of the rain, our modern infrastructure is pretty safe, and we now have much improved lightning awareness. However, when we remove or diminish the effectiveness of these safety elements, as we do when we enter the high peaks, the probability of lightning injuries and deaths goes way up. We high peaks adventurers need a lightning safety strategy at the core of our planning and adventuring activities.
Planning for and being mindful of lightning while on the mountain is at the heart of the “yield and overcome” mindset atop the Colorado high peaks. This topic is broken into 3 essays that cover what lightning is and how it is a significant threat in the high peaks, and also what we can do to manage the risk atop the Colorado High Peaks. The essays are listed here in order: