I'm no newbie when it comes to thunderstorms, in fact, they are one of my favorite parts about summer! But it wasn't until I moved to Florida that I had experienced hair-raising lightening storms. So, what's the deal - what does it mean when your hair stands up during a lightning storm?
The first time it happened to me is a couple of years ago when I was on a sunset cruise tour and an evening storm unexpectedly rolled in; perhaps one of the worst places to get caught in a thunderstorm.
Anyways, I had nowhere else to go other than an uncovered metal bench seat that I shared with my boyfriend and a couple other tourists. We all just nervously laughed the situation off, patting each other's hair down and glancing around to see if everyone else was experiencing the same thing, which they were. Thankfully, by that point the boat was already on the way back to shore and the worst of the storm was over; we made it back to safety, wet and worried, but without any major problems.
Fast forward to this spring of 2021, my boyfriend and I were taking a lovely evening stroll through St. Pete when yet another lightning storm caught us by surprise. It wasn't raining and the thunder and lightning appeared to be far enough away that we didn't feel the need to rush for cover -- until the hair raising experience happened again.
Being that Florida is flat and we were one of the tallest things around, we weren't taking our chances this time. As soon as I noticed my boyfriend's hair was standing up, we ran for the nearest shelter and I spent the next hour Googling why this kept happening to us, particularly in Florida. (We're both from Pennsylvania, where mountains and tall trees are abundant.)
Well, apparently we were very lucky. According to many sources, when electric storms are strong enough to make your hair stand up it means you're in imminent danger of being struck by lightening.
Here's a quote directly from the National Weather Service, "If your hair stands on end, lightning is about to strike you. Drop to your knees and bend forward but don't lie flat on the ground."
So, remember how I mentioned that it didn't seem like the storm was close enough to affect us? The National Weather Service has something to say about that too...
"Lightning can travel 10 to 12 miles from a thunderstorm. This is often farther than the sound of thunder travels. That means that if you can hear thunder you are close enough to a storm to be in danger of being struck by lightning"
Alright, now that we know what it means, let's talk about why it happens.
Your body has a static electricity "charge" of sorts, and during certain conditions it can increase greatly.
One way your body can accumulate static charge is through friction. If you are rubbing up against something (such as the clothes you're wearing) or if the air around you is in motion (such as during a storm), there will be more potential difference between your hair and whatever else it may be touching than usual.
This means that when part of your hair comes in contact with --say a balloon--, the two will have opposite charges, one with a positive charge and the other with a negative charge. The hair wants to be at equilibrium, so it moves in the direction of the greater electrical force (the balloon), trying to equalize its potential. In the case of lightning storms, the air is much more electrically charged than you are, causing the hair to move outward as though the air surrounding you is like a massive balloon.
Lightning strikes are dangerous because they can heat up large amounts of air very quickly via a phenomenon called Joule heating, which produces electromagnetic waves along with thermal energy. This electromagnetic energy is what gives lightning its bright appearance, but it can also cause damage through electric currents if you are close enough to an active strike - or the target of one.
So, now you know why your hair stands up in lightning storms! Oh, but one word of advice, next time there is a lightning storm nearby and you find yourself casually enjoying the outdoors - don't be like me and wait for your hair to give you the warning signal you need to promptly take cover.
You can learn more about lightning storms through the National Weather Service here and here.