Lightning is underrated killer responsible for 47 deaths per year

Lightning 11/19/2018

Lightning is underrated killer responsible for 47 deaths per year

That’s how the National Weather Service (NWS) describes lightning, which, over the past 30 years, has been responsible for an average of 47 deaths per year. Nebraska sees an average of 773,000 lightning strikes per year.

Preventing death and injury from lightning is a topic presented to farmers and ranchers by outreach specialist Ellen Duysen at the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health.

"Because farmers work outside frequently, they are at greater risk for lightning-caused injury and death than the average population," Duysen said. "Lightning also may cause fires in buildings, damage to electrical equipment and electrocution of livestock."

The UNMC Ag Safety Center relies on experts such as NWS Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius to provide information on prevention measures and methods of promoting lightning safety.

The NWS mantra, Jensenius said, is "When thunder roars, go indoors!" The science of lightning is - well, complicated. But, the safety aspect of lightning isn’t - just get inside a building or vehicle once thunder occurs or lightning strikes appear.

The first step in lightning safety is staying aware of weather forecasts for your area. When thunderstorms are forecast, it’s recommended to curtail outdoor activities. At the very least, make sure you have access to a sturdy, fully enclosed shelter, such as a home or business.

"Keep in mind that, if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning," Jensenius said. "Seek shelter immediately. If a sturdy building isn’t available, a hard-topped vehicle will provide protection. Make sure all the vehicle windows are rolled up."

When you see a thunderstorm developing, don’t wait to hear thunder before taking shelter, he said. Lightning can strike 10 miles or more in the area surrounding a thunderstorm.

"One of the most common misperceptions about lightning is that metal attracts a strike," Jenseius said. "That isn’t true. Lightning strikes begin as a step leader coming down from a storm cloud. As the lightning approaches the ground, it’s seeking a connection. Typically, that connection is the tallest object in the immediate area. It could be a tree, a fence, or the ground."

Nearly anything can be struck by lightning, including human beings. An average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, contains roughly 1 billion joules (unit of work or energy) - enough to power a 60-watt lightbulb for six months and cool a refrigerator with an open door for 24 hours.

"Another misconception about lightning is the idea that rubber protects you from a lightning strike," Jensenius said. "Rubber doesn’t have that much insulating power. You often hear of people being protected from lightning when it strikes a vehicle. That’s due to the metal shell of the vehicle. The lightning will follow the metal shell, going around a person and through or over tires."

Enclosed farm equipment would provide the same type of protection. Anyone inside a vehicle or farm equipment during a lightning storm should stay as far away as possible from windows and the vehicles metal shell.

Heat lightning doesn’t actually exist, he said. When you see flashes of lightning, they’re coming from a distant thunderstorm, which is far enough away you can’t hear thunder.

When lightning strikes, the power it contains radiates from the center of the strike to the surrounding area. That means that lightning striking the ground could injure or kill a person who was close enough to be affected by the radiating energy. It also explains why a lightning strike can damage electrical appliances and electrical wiring.

"A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt will follow routes like gas and water pipes, electric lines, phone lines, cable TV/internet lines, gutters, downspouts, metal window frames - anything that conducts the electrical power," Jensenisus said.

Water will conduct electricity, which is why lightning specialists like Jensenius advise staying out of the shower and bathroom in general during a lightning storm.

"Stay away from windows and doors during the storm," he advised, "and it’s not safe to be on the porch when you hear thunder and see lightning."

In addition to causing bodily injury, lightning strikes can start a fire. Wood and other flammable materials can easily ignite due to a lightning strike. House roofs and attics are the most common sites of lightning induced fires. When lightning travels through electrical wires, it burns them up, posing the risk of fire anywhere along the electrical system.

A power surge caused by lightning can damage electronics or generate a shock wave that fractures concrete, brick, cinderblock and stone. Brick and stone chimneys are often damaged by lightning.

The same shockwaves may be strong enough to blow holes in plaster walls, shatter grass, create a trench in the soil and crack foundations. Shrapnel from demolished items also can cause damage to people and property.

"Don’t shower, wash dishes or use an electronic device during a thunderstorm," Jensenius said. "Washing machines are especially dangerous because they involve both electricity and plumbing. Land line telephones are also hazardous, but cell phones and wireless phones are safe."

Direct contact with the ground should also be avoided since lightning current can move through soil and across wet/damp concrete. In a basement, garage or patio, wearing shoes is advised.

If a building is struck by lightning, call the fire department. Fire may not be immediately visible, but could be smoldering somewhere in the structure. Watch for falling debris resulting from damaged shingles, chimneys, or walls.

To protect sensitive electronics during a storm, unplug any item you wish to protect. Surge protectors and UPS units can’t provide direct-strike protection. Review property insurance to determine the level of lightning damage coverage it provides. Frequent off-site backups can help protect valuable computer data.

If a person is struck by lightning, immediately call 911. Lightning victims don’t carry any electrical charge, so it’s safe to immediately tend to them. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns and nerve damage are all common when people are struck by lightning. CPR may be necessary, but most people do survive lightning strikes, even though they may always experience the effects of the strike.

"Don’t stand outside and watch storms," Jensenius said. "Listen to your local forecast and always plan ahead so there’s a safe place to go in the event of a storm.

"And stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder. That allows the storm to move on, and you won’t have to worry about lightning."

Additional lightning safety information is available at

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Featrure Courtesy of University of Nebraska Medical Center