National Lightning Safety Council

Ron Holle

The National Lightning Safety Council is working to shine a spotlight on the lightning hazard and expand its mission to promote lightning safety awareness. This month the Council connected with member, Ron Holle, to discuss his role in the lightning safety effort.

Q. What is your background or education?

Tropical cloud systems were one of the main specialties in the meteorology program at Florida State University when I received my B.S. and M.S. In the tropics, convection - cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds - drive nearly all events. Spending time on field programs in the Florida interior, Bahamas, Barbados, West Africa, and the Great Plains, showed that convection was the core idea that I wanted to follow. During a Florida project, the new lightning detection technology developed at the University of Arizona was deployed for the first time. Since it’s a great way to measure convection, it was a natural extension from my earlier interests.

Q. How did you get interested in lightning safety?

In the early stages of lightning detection data with NOAA, we looked at a case in Florida where two people were killed and four injured by lightning on a beach on August 24, 1991. Expecting that there would be plenty of lightning detected, we were astonished to find only two cloud-to-ground flashes anywhere near that time and place. How could that be? That led to studies of many situations of where and when people were killed and injured by lightning: What were they doing? How much lightning was there? Were they affected at the start, middle or end of a thunderstorm with few, many, or frequent flashes? The short answer: there was no single scenario, except that people were outside of a lightning-safe building or vehicle.

Q. How did you get involved with the National Lightning Safety Council?

I helped with the start of the NOAA Lightning Safety Group in the early 2000s, and posted many maps and tables to that website. While some of the activities were done while with Vaisala, much of the input was on my own time. When John Jensenius retired from serving as the NOAA contact for lightning safety, he took the interest with him to form the Council, where we are able to provide information and data to supplement the NOAA Website.

Q. What do you see in the future regarding the study of lightning? What do you think is moving the cause of lightning safety and lightning safety awareness forward?

In the last few months there has been a tremendous growth in contacts around the world for lightning safety. Zooms have included people in dozens of countries, and the U.S. National Lightning Safety Council is considered to be a model for other regions. Meaningful contacts have been established in the Indian Subcontinent, Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. As a result, the awareness of the lightning threat is now being viewed more completely than before, when so many countries struggled to develop an idea of how to proceed. Global members of the lightning safety community have turned out to be dedicated, passionate, and anxious to make a difference. Based on various detection methods, we know very well when, where, and how much lightning occurs everywhere. That’s not the problem…but lightning safety is an inter-disciplinary topic where knowledge of lightning needs to be coupled with the understanding of the vulnerability of people, and how to reach them with the correct information.

Q. Can you tell us about a specific project you are working on or are passionate about in the study of lightning or the lightning safety awareness movement?

For the last two decades, I have been working on the question of ‘How many people are killed and injured by lightning in the world every year?’ Well, that’s a very tough question to answer. I estimated 24,000 deaths and 240,000 injuries a year about 15 years ago. Sometimes I think that is way too large, but at other times I’m afraid it may be too small. I am trying various ways to find out, but it’s not easy since so many lightning casualties are in countries with poor infrastructure and enormous exposure to lightning.

Q. Do you have any other comments or words of wisdom for readers?

Members of the Council are often asked for a simple way to be safe from lightning without going to too much trouble. The only answer is to go inside a substantial building with grounded wiring and plumbing, or a fully enclosed metal-topped vehicle. Outside of those situations, there is no certain safety. It doesn’t matter what you’re carrying or wearing, or how you stand. If you are outside of a lightning-safe building or vehicle you are vulnerable to lightning. It’s not a message that is usually wanted to be heard, but that’s the real answer. ###