Lightning is one of the most underrated severe weather hazards, yet ranks as one of the top weather killers in the United States. According to NOAA, lightning strikes in America kill about 58 people and injure hundreds of others each year.
Lightning also causes several billion dollars in property damage each year and is a frequent cause of wildfires especially in the southeast and western US.
Did you know…
…there are an estimated 25 million lightning flashes each year?!
… nearly 2,000 thunderstorms can be in progress over the face of the earth at any given moment?!
…Venezuelan residents on the Catatumbo River get a spectacular show of 40,000 lightning strikes a night almost 300 nights a year?! Source: io9.com
…Florida has twice as many lightning casualties (deaths and injuries combined) as any other state.
… men are struck by lightning four times more often than women?!
People versus Lightning
According to a study entitled “Demographics of U.S. Lightning Casualties and Damages from 1959 – 1994,” by Ronald L. Holle and Raúl E. López of the National Severe Storms Laboratory and E. Brian Curran of the National Weather Service, males account for 84% of lightning fatalities and 82% of injuries.
The number of lightning related deaths has dropped over the past few decades mainly due to improved weather forecasting and educational campaigns, but the jolts still cause hundreds of thousands of injuries worldwide every year.
A unique injury phenomenon is this photo from an MSNBC “The Body Odd” article showing what happened to Winston Kemp, a 24-year-old electrician, after he was struck by lightning.
These reddish fern-leaf patterns called “Lichtenberg figures” are a skin reaction to a lightning strike and sometimes referred to as “lightning flowers” or “lightning trees”. They tend to occur on the arms, back, neck, chest, or shoulders of lightning strike victims.
“The feathering marks are formed by the transmission of static electricity along the superficial blood vessels that nourish the skin,” says Dr. Mathew Avram, director of the Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“They’re the kind of marks that when an emergency medicine doctor sees it, you know exactly what the diagnosis is — a lightning strike,” Avram explains. “These are an unbelievably rare thing to see.”
Lightning safety tips and resources
If you hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning so take cover as quickly as possible!
Be aware that lightning can travel 60 miles or more, often extending up to 10 miles away from the cloud that formed it. Generally, however, a bolt travels 10 miles or less.
Remember… water is a great conductor of electricity so swimming, wading, snorkeling and scuba diving are NOT safe during thunderstorms and inclement weather. Stay off the beach and out of small boats or canoes. If you are caught in a boat, crouch down in the center away from metal hardware.
If you are caught outdoors and don’t have access to a strong shelter to get into or under, BE SMALL..! Do NOT lie flat on the ground since that makes you a larger target. Instead crouch down, try to stay on the balls of your feet and bend forward putting hands on your knees – especially if you feel your hair stand on end and/or feel tingly (which means lightning is about to strike!)
If someone is struck by lightning, you can touch them since they do not carry electrical charge. Check ABCs (Airway, Breathing, & Circulation) and be prepared to perform Rescue Breathing or CPR. And watch for 2 wounds – an entrance and an exit burn. DO NOT try to cool the burn with anything. Cover burn with a dry sterile bandage or clean cloth and call 9-1-1 if necessary.
This year Lightning Safety Awareness Week runs from June 24-30.
Use the following resources to learn more about lightning safety and to find toolkits, handouts, videos and other resources to share with others.
Lightning: Safety tips (on APN forum)
National Weather Service Lightning Safety site
National Geographic’s interactive Make Lightning Strike page
Discovery Channel Raging Planet video about rare upward lightning
How Stuff Works: How Lightning Works
Janet Liebsch is VP of FedHealth and co-author of IT’S A DISASTER! …and what are YOU gonna do about it?