This week is lightning safety awareness week in the United States and people must be more aware of the danger because lightning deaths have been decreasing in recent years. Back in the 1990s, if I recall correctly, about 80 or 90 people per year were killed by lightning. Now the average is down to 54. Which you could put in the perspective of 1 per state in order to grasp the number a bit better, but in reality more lightning deaths occur in Florida than any other state.
The average number of deaths per year is down to 54 but 2012 was even better when we had a record low of 26 fatalities. So far this year there have only been 4 fatalities due to lightning. I would like to say that all the “awareness” education is responsible for the decline in deaths but I wonder if it has to do with changing human habits as well. People do not spend as much time outside as they used to, plus more people live in the city where lightning deaths are not as likely (because of the tall buildings with lightning protection). Kids and young adults play video games more in the present day instead of engaging outdoor sports like golf or fishing which have a history of being dangerous in regards to lightning.
Which brings me to the number one safety tip to stay safe from lightning – GO INDOORS! If you hear thunder, it is time to wrap up whatever you are doing outside and head inside. It doesn’t really matter where “inside” is, just as long as you are in some sort-of shelter. It could be a car, truck, garage, barn, house, trailer, you name it. You are almost always going to be safe from lightning if you are inside.
For those times you are stuck outside with no hope of finding shelter, stay away from lone tall trees or utility poles and high areas such as hills. Lightning generally strikes the tallest/highest things around. Resist the temptation to hide under a tree during a storm with frequent lightning. That one lone tall tree on the golf course or at the local park is the most likely spot for lightning to strike. It is better to crouch down near the ground out in the rain and get soaked than to be somewhat dry under a tree and get struck by lightning. A good tip for the golf course is to bring one of those cheap (basically disposable) emergency rain ponchos. They easily fit in your pocket and you can whip it out during a thunderstorm and stay dry, without having to resort to the dangerous practice of standing under the big lone tree.
For more in depth information about lightning and lightning safety, check out this page from the National Weather Service.
Through all the years of researching lightning and protecting people and buildings from lightning, the one device that cannot be beat is the trusty lightning rod. It collects the electricity from the lightning and sends it harmlessly into the ground, thus protecting the building and the inhabitants inside. This does not mean we couldn’t come up with something better. The most recent effort has been to use lasers to trigger and possibly divert lightning bolts. It is a neat idea and there is no reason it wouldn’t work in some locations, but I doubt it would be economically feasible.
Have a swell Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew