Various myths, farmer’s rules and the wildest theories are entwined around thunderstorms and lightning: For example, it is said that you should pull out all the mains plugs during a thunderstorm and not use the phone or take a shower. Older folk wisdom such as “You should give way to oak trees, you should look for beech trees” are stubborn.
Is the car really the safest place in the event of a lightning strike? How do you calculate the distance of a thunderstorm? And does ball lightning really exist? We clear up the 10 most common myths about thunderstorms and lightning
A well-known saying that appears again and again in connection with thunderstorms is: “You should give way to oak trees, you should look for beech trees”. Although this wisdom persists, on closer inspection it turns out to be more of a myth.
As the tree experts from “Wohllebens Waldakademie” make clear, there is never any visible evidence of a lightning strike on beeches. This is said to be due to the fact that beech trees (in contrast to oak trees) have a smooth trunk, which allows rainwater to run down in one go.
Because it often rains during a thunderstorm, the current can be diverted through the water layer directly into the ground without damaging the trunk of the beech tree. This is different with oak trees, since the rough bark cannot conduct electricity so well into the ground. Accordingly, the oak trunk bursts open in the event of a lightning strike.
Because the stigmata on oak trees are so obvious, but the bark of the beech trees is spared by lightning strikes, this “dangerous fallacy” became established among our ancestors, according to the forester Peter Wohlleben’s academy. In general, you should refrain from looking for shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm.
The assumption still holds that all devices should be disconnected from the power supply and all mains plugs pulled out during a thunderstorm. This assertion is partially correct.
If no so-called overvoltage protection in the form of special devices is installed in the house, the current can get into the electrical devices via the cables and damage them in the event of a lightning strike. The energy company “EnBW”, for example, therefore recommends pulling all plugs on electrical devices from the socket during a thunderstorm.
Incidentally, so-called overvoltage protection is now mandatory for all new buildings that are connected to the power grid. You can find out whether your house has such a protective device from your responsible house management.
The claim that lightning never strikes the same spot twice in a row is wrong.
As early as 2003, scientists at the University of Arizona found out that after a first lightning strike, a second one can often follow in the immediate vicinity. Of the 386 so-called ground lightning strikes, a full 35 percent struck just a few meters from the first point of impact.
Occasionally, even more subsequent flashes could be observed in the video recordings from the five-story campus building. The third and fourth subsequent lightning bolt often struck exactly at the same spot as the first lightning strike – even if the second lightning strike was a few meters away.
The old farmer’s saying that milk goes sour during a thunderstorm is only partially true. At a time when not every household had a refrigerator, the milk quickly went sour during a thunderstorm. The culprit was not thunder and lightning, but the muggy, warm air that often accompanies summer thunderstorms.
There are many myths surrounding so-called ball lightning. One of them states that the spherical luminous phenomenon should not exist at all and that it should only be a matter of hallucinations or pipe dreams. In fact, the question of whether ball lightning exists is not that easy to answer.
The world-famous inventor and physicist Nicola Tesla is said to have encountered the phenomenon of ball lightning while artificially generating lightning, as can be seen from his notes “Colorado Springs Notes” from 1899 and 1900. In the hundred years that followed, the mysterious balls of light kept research busy.
Various hypotheses and theories have been developed around ball lightning. For a long time, the scientists were denied definitive proof of ball lightning or a picture or video recording – until 2012.
When researchers at the “Northwest Normal University” in China wanted to use so-called spectrometers and a camera to examine thunderstorms more closely, they succeeded in taking the groundbreaking picture of ball lightning – completely unintentionally. You can see a light phenomenon that traveled about 10 meters across the ground immediately after a lightning strike.
The myth is only partially true and needs an explanation. According to the laws of physics, sound is slower than light. This is how the phenomenon occurs that during a thunderstorm you first see the lightning and only a few seconds later you can hear the thunder. A simple formula should be used to calculate the distance to an approaching thunderstorm.
Even schoolchildren know the rule of thumb: if you see lightning, you start counting the seconds – until thunder breaks out. The number of seconds is divided by three. The result should finally reveal how many kilometers away the thunderstorm is from your own location. This rule of thumb (with a division by three) can therefore be used for rough calculations.
Background: Sound can travel 343.2 meters in one second if the air is dry and the temperature is 20 degrees. For more precise calculations, you can use one of the numerous lightning calculators that are available on the Internet – for example at blitzrechner.de.
A common myth is that people with a lot of jewelry or piercings are more attracted to lightning than people without jewelry. This myth is wrong.
In fact, metal is considered a good conductor of electricity during lightning strikes. As experts from the “VDE Lightning Protection and Lightning Research Committee” (VDE ABB) make clear, “even large metal parts should not have an attractive effect on lightning”. This also applies to jewelry wearers, since lightning “does not “see” the small metal parts on or in people at all.
Are you allowed to take a shower during a thunderstorm or not? This question is always part of heated discussions. In fact, the answer depends on the condition of the building.
In newer buildings, the water pipes are often already made of plastic, so that in the event of a lightning strike, no electricity can be fed into the shower. However, if the water pipes are made of metal (as in some older buildings), showering can actually be dangerous if lightning strikes the house.
In the meantime, however, so-called lightning protection systems have been installed in many buildings, which enable you to shower or bathe without hesitation even during a thunderstorm.
According to a common claim, you should stay in your car during a thunderstorm because you are protected from lightning there. This myth is actually true.
As the “ADAC” explains, your own car serves as a so-called “Faraday cage” in the event of a lightning strike. In the event of a lightning strike, the current is directed around the occupants thanks to the bodywork and discharged directly into the ground – but only as long as you do not touch any metal parts directly in the car.
Incidentally, the same principle also works for mobile homes and convertibles as long as the top remains closed. According to the “ADAC”, there should now be metal rods in “almost every roof construction” that direct a lightning strike directly into the ground.
However, cyclists and motorcyclists should get off during a thunderstorm and even move away from the vehicle outside. The “ADAC” recommends avoiding metal constructions of any kind during thunderstorms with lightning strikes.
The assumption that you shouldn’t use the phone during a thunderstorm is only partially true.
In fact, back then, this myth was more related to landline phones that had a cord. In the worst case, a lightning strike can actually reach the line on such phones. In such a case, callers should at most feel a small electric shock, as “Focus” reported in an interview with lightning protection expert Thomas Raphael.
For a number of years, the myth has also persisted that lightning can increasingly strike mobile phones. As “RP Online” reports, British researchers are said to have referred in this context to the case of a 15-year-old girl who was struck by lightning while talking on the mobile phone while walking through a park in a thunderstorm.
However, lightning protection experts from “VDE ABB” give the all-clear. For example, using a cell phone outdoors during a thunderstorm would not increase the risk of being struck by lightning. The electromagnetic radiation of a mobile phone or the fact that the device is made of metal should be classified as irrelevant in the event of potential lightning strikes, as stated in a statement by “VDE ABB”.