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Fewer people in US are dying after being struck by lightning - here's why

Taking the growing population into account, the lightning death rate has shrunk more than 40-fold since recordkeeping began in 1940.

Image: Shutterstock/John D Sirlin

LIGHTNING – ONCE ONE of nature’s biggest killers — is claiming far fewer lives in the United States, mostly because people have learned to get out of the way.

In the 1940s, when the US population was smaller, lightning killed more than 300 people annually. So far this year, 13 people have died after being struck, on pace for a record low of 17 deaths.

Taking the growing population into account, the lightning death rate has shrunk more than 40-fold since recordkeeping began in 1940.

Separate videos last month of a Florida lifeguard and an airport worker being hit by lightning went viral. Both people survived.

Lightning strikes have not changed — they hit about the same amount as they used to, Paul Markowski, Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor, said.

A big difference, however, is that fewer people are outside during bad weather. If we’re not huddled indoors, we’re often in cars. Vehicles with metal roofs — not convertibles — are safe from lightning, experts say.

“As a society we spend less time outside,” Harold Brooks, a scientist at the National Weather Service’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, said. “Especially farmers. There aren’t just many farmers around.”

Decades ago, farmers would be in fields and were the tallest object, making them most likely to get hit, National Weather Service lightning safety specialist John Jensenius Jr said.

That helps explain the drop in yearly lightning deaths from about 329 in the 1940s to around 98 in the 1970s. The numbers have kept plunging since then. From 2007-2016, average yearly deaths dropped to 31.

Better medical care 

Improved medical care has also played a key role, including wider use of defibrillators and more CPR-trained bystanders.

When Dr Mary Ann Cooper started working in an emergency department in the 1970s, there was nothing in textbooks about how to treat lightning victims.

Now – instead of treating lightning patients the same way as people who are burned from touching high-voltage wires – doctors focus more on the neurological damage, she said.

Cooper, who is professor emerita of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said people are more aware of the dangers of lightning nowadays.

“We’ve equipped the public by saying, ‘When thunder roars, go indoors.’ Three-year-olds can remember that,” Cooper said.

Men are four times more likely to be killed by lightning in the US than women, statistics show. Men often do riskier things that get them in trouble in storms, Cooper and Jensenius said.

“Our victims are at the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place is anywhere outside. The wrong time is anywhere that you can hear thunder,” Jensenius said.

‘We ignored it’ 

In July — the deadliest month for lightning in the US — holidaymakers Andre Bauldock and Lamar Rayfield were on a beach in Florida when a thunderstorm rolled in.

“We ignored it. We were just thinking it was going to pass over soon,” Bauldock recalled.

We could see the sun in the distance. I was admiring the lightning out in the ocean and I thought it was far away.

The next thing Bauldock remembers is waking up in a car park surrounded by people. He was told the lightning struck his friend’s stomach and then hit him. They both fell over. Rayfield eventually died.

In another incident, James Church was hit by lightning while fishing in Florida earlier this year.

“I woke up. I couldn’t move. It was like an elephant sitting on me, not a single muscle would work,” Church recalled. “My eyes were working, my brain was working … I couldn’t feel anything.”

An analysis of 352 US lightning deaths from 2006 to 2016 found people were most often doing something near water — fishing, camping and beach activities— when they were hit. Golf doesn’t make it into the top dozen activities, but soccer does, Jensensius said.

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