Strikes central

Environment Canada says red deer receives most cloud to ground lightning strikes than anywhere in province

Red Deer is apparently Alberta’s lightning rod — lucky us.

According to Environment Canada, Red Deer received the most cloud to ground lightning strikes per square kilometre per year between 1999 and 2008 out of 12 Alberta cities.

Red Deer topped the list at .79 lightning strikes, followed by Airdrie at .77, Edmonton at .73 and Calgary at .68.

During those 10 years, Red Deer had 464 cloud to ground strikes, Airdrie had 196, Edmonton saw 3,142 and Calgary had 4,292.

“Edmonton and Calgary get a lot more lightning strikes, but when you look at cloud to ground flashes per kilometre, Red Deer ranks the highest in the province as far as cities are concerned,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Bill McMurtry.

“Red Deer is right in the hub. That’s the epicentre of severe weather in Alberta. When we combine things like tornadoes, hail, heavy rain occurrences, the Red Deer region experiences more than any other region of the province. That is really the centre of summer severe weather.”

Other cities in the lightning study were St. Albert, Lloydminster, High Level, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Slave Lake, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

Study results can be found at — http://www.ec.gc.ca/foudre-lightning/default.asp?lang=En&n=4871AAE6-1 — and includes cities in every province and territory.

“If we compare (Red Deer) to southern Ontario which gets the most, the number is relatively small. If you look at a place like Windsor, which gets more lightning than anywhere else, they get 2.83 flashes per square kilometre per year — over three times more than Red Deer.”

McMurtry said the southern prairies come in second, followed by the foothills of the Canadian Rockies when it comes to lightning strikes.

A lot of the lightning in the foothills has to do with the formation of thunderstorms and the affects can be felt along the foothills in areas like Nordegg, Rocky Mountain House and Sundre, he said.

“The fact that most of our winds, for the big percentage of the year in the upper level, are from the west, when those storms develop in the Canadian Rockies they move eastward so areas immediately east of the foothills tend to see the highest amount.”

Southern Ontario can get lightning anytime of year, while most of it occurs on the prairies and foothills in the late spring and summer.

He said Florida wins the title for the most lighting in North America, which has a lot to do with the availability of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

“(Alberta) is dry, but another key ingredient is instability in the air mass. The mountains play an incredible role by creating these parcels of dry air that get forced into the mid portions of the atmosphere and that helps to increase the instability of the air mass which is one of the reasons we see a lot of thunderstorm activity in the foothills or on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains.”

In Canada, an average of 10 people die each year and about 150 are injured by lightning.

“Of those 10 deaths, 60 to 80 per cent would occur from ground current or side flashes, not a direct lightning strike,” McMurtry said.

Ground current happens when lightning strikes the ground and disperses laterally. Side flashes are when lightning strikes an object then arcs off that object.

He said a common misconception is that people need to be directly under a storm to get hit, but two-thirds of deaths occur when the storm is approaching or leaving.

“The safest place to be is in a building, particularly a building with plumbing and lightning. Electricity or lightning will always follow the path of least resistance, so if the building gets hit that you’re in, it will tend to follow the plumbing and wiring of a building as opposed to going through you.”

To stay safe indoors, people should not have direct contact with plumbing or wiring.

Another safe place to be is inside a vehicle with a metal roof.

He said dramatic footage of a truck being struck by lightning outside Tokyo on May 31 can be found on the Internet.

“The two occupants of the vehicle were shaken, but not injured, yet the vehicle suffered extensive damage to the electrical system. They were safe inside because the charge went around the vehicle along the frame.”

They just couldn’t get out of their vehicle due to how the metal fused and the melting, he added.

McMurtry said things to stay away from include tall objects, like trees and towers, as they attract lightning. Water is highly conductive so people on the water don’t even have to be close to a lightning strike to be affected. Metal fences also allow electrical discharge to travel distances upwards of a kilometre before finding a place to ground.

“We’ve had several deaths on the prairies over the last number of years from people working on fences.”

McMurtry said during lightning season people need to take the appropriate caution. Outdoor activities make people vulnerable, especially when boating, camping, golfing, and attending outdoor events.

The saying goes — when thunder roars, go indoors — but people should also watch the sky because lightning can occur without thunder, he said.

“When lightning occurs, the air immediately around the lightning strike gets super heated. Super heated air expands very rapidly and it’s that expansion of air that creates the sound waves that we hear when we hear thunder.

“There could be situations where the sound waves refract or reflect around you so you don’t hear it. It all depends of the composition of the atmosphere.”

To see where lightning is occuring right now, check the Canadian Lightning Danger Map http://www.weather.gc.ca/lightning/index_e.html

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

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