Decimating hurricanes, earthquakes, severe flooding and now out of control wildfires blazing across California. It certainly seems that Mother Nature is out to get us. Yet, lightning, which has always been one of nature’s “biggest killers,” is reportedly taking fewer lives in the US than it once did.
In fact, National Weather Service records show that even though far more people live here now than they did in the 1940’s, the death rate from lightning strikes has “fallen by more than “40-fold” since they began to keep track of such phenomena 77-years ago.
In fact, while 300 people were killed by lightning annually during that decade, the numbers dropped to about 47 between 1987-2016. Only 17 such fatalities have been recorded so far this year. Meanwhile, more than 185 people were killed in the US and Caribbean by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
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Most deaths occur when a lightning strike causes a cardiac arrest. While death is usually instantaneous, some people appear to have a delayed death a few days, particularly if they are resuscitated but have suffered irreversible brain damage. Those that do survive are often rendered unconscious by the hit, then suffer from spells of confusion and even amnesia after they come to.
In addition, lightning often leaves skin burns in characteristic Lichtenberg figures, (aka called lightning flowers); believed to be caused by the rupture of small capillaries under the skin, either from the lightning itself or currents from the use of defibrillators.
Long-term effects for survivors can also rupture eardrums, bring on cataracts in the eyes, chronic pain, chronic dizziness, and sleeplessness. It is interesting to note that experiments on sheep have shown that lightning strikes to the head send electricity directly into the body via nose, eyes, ears, and mouth before converging on the brain stem, which controls breathing. As a result, an unconscious person may end up suffocating.
While no figures regarding how many people have been struck and survived each year are currently available, new methods of treatment have been seen as improving survival rates. According to Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, professor emerita of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, “there was nothing in the textbooks about how to treat victims of lightning” when she started out in the emergency room during the 1970’s, so doctors tended to treat victims the same way they did those suffering from burns caused by high voltage wires. That, however, has changed.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time
Lightning can strike or injure humans and animals in different ways. These include direct strikes, splash strikes (when lightning bounces off nearby objects), as well as reverberate via ground strikes near a person.
While a bolt of lightning can reach a temperature of nearly 50,000°F in a split second (reportedly nearly 5-times hotter than the sun’s surface), the electric charge does not remain in the body and victims can be touched immediately without harming rescuers.
Although experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe that a number of lightning strikes have not changed over the years, they do attribute the drop in bolts actually hitting people to a number of causes, the main one being that people are not outside as much in bad weather, thanks to improved education about what to do (and not do) during thunderstorms.
This includes seeking immediate shelter (whether in buildings or closed hardtop vehicles with windows shut) at the first clap of thunder and staying away from water. Still, the majority of people who die from being hit by lightning are those participating in fishing, swimming and camp activities during storms. Ironically, golfers have been hit less than those on soccer fields, John Jensenius Jr, lightning safety specialist for the NWS told the Associated Press.
Outdoor safety tips
- If caught outdoors in open areas: Lie down as flat as you can on the ground, keep your feet together and cover your ears.
- Avoid trees (as lightning will hit the tallest object around.
- Experts also say to avoid, sheds, baseball dugouts, and picnic areas.
- Get away from water
- Avoid any metal objects, and drop backpacks or pocketbooks containing metal including keys.
- Stay 15-feet away from other people
- Do not use electronic equipment including computers or, phones or cell phones during thunder/lightning storms
- Do not shower, bathe or wash clothes and dishes
- Stay away from windows and doors
Note: Everyone should wait at least 20minutes to a half hour after the last clap of thunder before venturing outside his or her shelter.