Greetings once again from Grand Canyon National Park’s Backcountry Information Center Podcast! This is Ranger Andrea bringing you words from the wise about lightning safety at Grand Canyon.
Have you ever stood outside during a thunderstorm and had your hair stand on end or felt sharp prickles on your skin? If you have had this happen and are listening to this podcast you are one lucky person! Thunderstorms create an electrical charge in the air which is ultimately released by a lightning strike. If you have experienced the skin prickles or hair-raising, an electrical charge was building where you were standing which means lightning had a high probability of striking in that very spot. I hope you left the area and found cover!
The Grand Canyon region experiences a monsoon season each summer that typically starts in early July and lasts into September. These storms bring the much needed rain that the dry desert landscape requires to flourish. However, they also bring strong thunderstorms that produce lightning, a powerful force of electricity that reaches temperatures of 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can travel upwards of ten miles from its parent thundercloud. For this reason, it is important to know how close a thunderstorm actually is and when to take cover.
An easy way to know the distance of a thunderstorm from your location is to count the number of seconds between the lightning strike and the resulting thunder. Dividing that number by five gives you the number of miles between you and the bolt of lightning. For example, if you count ten seconds between the lightning strike and the thunder, you are approximately two miles from the lightning itself. To find the distance of lightning in kilometers, divide the number of seconds by three instead of five. If you are within six miles (or thirty seconds) of the lightning, you are in the “high danger zone” and should seek cover from the storm. Be aware, however, that high danger from lightning may continue for as much as thirty minutes after the last noticeable lightning strike or thunderclap. If you are unsure how far away lightning is, just remember “If you see it, flee it! If you hear it, clear it!”
If you see a thunderstorm building in the distance while standing on the canyon’s rim or hiking its backcountry, a few simple precautions should be taken to avoid injury by lightning. If you are in an established area such as parts of the rim or a developed campground, always be aware of the location of the nearest structure and know how long it will take you to get there. Keep in mind that the nearest structure to you may be your vehicle or a shuttle bus if on the rim. If lightning begins to strike (or you hear thunder, a product of lightning), take shelter in the structure, being sure to avoid metal surfaces and making sure your windows are rolled up if inside a vehicle. The most common mistakes visitors to Grand Canyon make during thunderstorms is not avoiding the rim or neglecting to find proper shelter.
Backcountry travelers who encounter thunderstorms in the canyon do not typically have a structure to use as a safe haven. These hikers cannot eliminate the risks associated with thunderstorms and lightning, but with proper action can reduce their risks. Hikers should always be aware of the surroundings and be mindful of when thunderstorms are or will be present, noting the location of the nearest place where shelter may be taken and making a plan to get there before the storm hits. When camping, you should not use your tent as refuge during a thunderstorm, and you should avoid open areas, rocky outcrops, lone trees, bodies of water, and stands of trees which are taller than surrounding trees. If any of these scenarios are unavoidable, hikers should spread out from each other, crouch down onto the balls of their feet keeping their heels touching, lower their head, cover their ears with their hands and place an insulated sleeping pad under their feet. This creates a smaller target and reduces the likelihood of injury from a lightning strike. If you find yourself hiking in a wooded area along the rim during a thunderstorm, find a small group of trees that are surrounded by taller trees and take refuge there. Finally, metal frame backpacks should be removed and avoided while lightning is present.
Although lightning strikes along the Colorado River are rare, proper precautions should still be taken during thunderstorms to avoid lightning-related injuries. River runners should get off the water while in the high danger zone of thunderstorms, avoid cave entrances and tall trees, and assume the lightning position described earlier if stuck in an open space.
Whether on the rim, hiking Grand Canyon’s backcountry, or rafting the Colorado River, you should always be aware of your surroundings, and know when thunderstorms may pose a threat to you and your companions. Know the weather forecast and check with Rangers for the most up-to-date weather information to find out if lightning has the potential to put you in the “high danger zone.” Finally, always remember the foolproof phrase that will help save you from the risks associate with lightning: “If you see it, flee it! If you hear it, clear it!”