A Moment of Science: Where lightning kills


It’s a common sound of the summer, a frequent light show at night, lightning can be stunning but it is also deadly. 20 people died in the US last year due to lightning- more than both hurricane and tornado fatalities combined in 2018. Since 2006, nearly 400 Americans have been killed by lightning. 70% of those occurred in June, July, and August- the peak months for both lightning strikes and outdoor activities- swimming, fishing, heading to the beach, or playing sports like golf.

Out of those outdoor activities, fishing accounted for the greatest number of lightning fatalities- not golf. Over the past 13 years, lightning killed more than 3 times more fishermen than golfers. Golf doesn’t even make the top five deadliest activities- which is fishing, enjoying the beach, camping, farming, and boating.

All of these activities have one thing in common to make them so dangerous: these all require a lot of time to head to safety. A trip back inside from the beach or from the boat might take 30 minutes or more and unfortunately, that may not be enough time. The National Weather Service analysis where this data comes from  sadly states “that a number of lightning victims were seeking safety when they were struck, the problem is that they just didn’t start soon enough.”

Starting too late may be caused by a number of things: background noise such as waves crashing or boat motors making it difficult to hear thunder, dark skies obscured by trees, not wanting to end the fun early, or by a general unwillingness to be inconvenienced.

That last one should hit home for all the guys out there- as I know how stubborn we can be. Our behavior results in a much higher likelihood of being struck- with males accounting for 80% of all lightning deaths.

So where does all this data leave us? Most lightning strikes that cause injury or death are preventable, but it requires both foresight and planning. Watch the forecast so you know which days have a threat of storms, plan your activities around this- avoiding situations in which you are far away or if there is no adequate shelter, and finally be ready to react at a moment’s notice- heading inside a building or a car immediately after you hear thunder.

We’ll continue to chat about lightning next week- dispelling myths and misconceptions about lightning.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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