You’d be shocked how often lightning strikes in Zion National Park. Here’s how to stay safe during your visit
Here’s how to stay safe during lightning season in the national park
SALT LAKE CITY — If there's a lightning storm, it's not going to help you to lie on the ground, duck for cover under a park pavilion or dive into a tent.
Lightning doesn't care if you are standing up or lying down or what you are carrying. It also doesn't matter how wet it is — if there is a dry lightning storm, it is just as dangerous.
In conjunction with National Lightning Safety Awareness Week June 24-30, the National Lightning Detection Network did an analysis of how often, and when, lightning occurs in the nation's five most visited parks, including Zion National Park.
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The network, owned and operated by Finland-based Vaisala, logged 20,000 instances of lightning traveling from cloud to ground from 2008 to 2017 at Zion.
Ron Holle, Vaisala's lightning expert, said 82 percent of the lightning happened during the monsoon season from July into September, and 64 percent of it happened between noon and 8 p.m.
"It shows that lightning at Zion is pretty concentrated," Holle said. "That is when you want to avoid being exposed to the threat."
Next to avalanches, lightning is Utah's No. 1 nature-induced cause of death.
From 1990 to 2003, there were 22 fatalities in Utah, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute, putting the state at No. 11 in the country for the frequency of lightning deaths.
For that same time period, however, Utah ranked No. 2 — behind Wyoming — for the death rate per million people at 0.70.
"There's no reliable way to be safe from lightning outside," Holle said.
Holle has been studying lightning for 30 years. The network tracks 90 percent of the lightning flashes in the United States and does work for the U.S. military, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as certain industries. It has 110 sensors in the United States, and 80 in Canada.
The network tracked 128,309 flashes in Utah in 2017. Texas had more than 3.3 million flashes that same year.
A flash of lightning contains strokes — not strikes — where the electrical charge splinters or breaks off into multiple prongs.
The network counts the incidences of cloud to ground contact as strokes, which Holle said is particularly common in Western states where there are two or three strokes within one flash.
Since the launch of National Lightning Safety Awareness Week in 2001, the average number of lightning-caused deaths in the United States has dropped from about 50 per year to 30 per year. There are about 250 people injured by lightning each year in the United States.
In the wide open outdoors like Zion National Park, Holle said it's best to make a dash for the vehicle or a large building at the first hint of a storm.
"The only two reliable places safe from lightning are inside a large, substantial building with grounds of wiring and plumbing that it can travel through safely and go to the ground, or a fully enclosed metal-top vehicle," Holle said.
Holle said vehicles are hit all the time.
"It's not at all unusual. It is not a fun experience, but to my knowledge, no one has been killed. It is a scary experience."
Holle has taken his knowledge about lightning around the globe, including to Africa and Bangladesh. Globally, there are 20,000 deaths from lightning each year, he said.
Anything with the word shelter is considered totally unsafe. A bus shelter, sun shelter, beach shelter or rain shelter, that’s not being protected. – Ron Holle, Vaisala’s lightning expert
In less industrialized and poor countries, the death rates are higher because of lack of access to safe places, Holle said. In the lightning season in Africa, for example, there are three to four deaths every two to three weeks.
Six years ago, Holle said 25 children in Uganda died in the same lightning incident.
Holle said people also wrongly assume "shelters" provide the same protection as buildings.
"Anything with the word shelter is considered totally unsafe. A bus shelter, sun shelter, beach shelter or rain shelter, that's not being protected."
People, too, wrongly discount the threat of lightning in a dry thunderstorm.
"Part of the reason in the difficulty of being safe in the Western states is that it may not be raining very hard at the time. It is not a drenching downpour like it is in the East."
The network also looked at lightning statistics for the Great Smoky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks.