During the 1940s lightning killed several hundred people a year in the U.S., in recent years annual lightning fatalities have dropped to below 40 people. At least some of the credit is due to John Jensenius, aka Doctor Lightning.
Jensenius, a Maine-based meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also NOAA’s chief lightning safety specialist. Digital Dying recently spoke with him about just what a death by lightning entails, whether we will one day be able to predict individual strikes and why so many more people are being killed by lightning in Africa.
Why were so many people being killed by lightning in the 1940s?
In the early 1940s lightning killed about 200 to 300 people a year in the United States. A large part of that was because we as a population did more farming. Small farmers literally sat on top of tractors, and tractors were the tallest thing out there. Nowadays farmers have tractors with insulated cabs. Also, people were being struck and killed while on corded phones, which acted as a wire connecting the outside to the inside. Now more people use cordless phones or cell phones, which are completely safe as long as you’re in a safe place. Another reason lightning deaths have come down is awareness. When we first started National Lightning Safety Week in 2001 we were averaging 70 deaths per year, now we’re down to about 37. Still, 37 is too many.
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What about laptops and Smartphones, can you get struck by lightning while tweeting?
If you are connected in any way to a wire that leads outside then yes. Anything that plugs into the wall, like appliances or computers is unsafe. A laptop that’s running on battery and not plugged into the wall is safe, but a laptop that is plugged into the wall is unsafe because you have that connection to the outside. Smartphones, unless they are plugged into the wall and charging, are safe.
Last week NOAA released a study that looked at lightning deaths over the past seven years. Of the 152 lightning deaths associated with leisure activities the most people have been killed while fishing (26 deaths), followed by camping (15 deaths), boating (14 deaths) and soccer (12 deaths). How have the most dangerous activities when it comes to lightning changed over time?
A lightning study that looked at data from 1959 to 1994 reported about four golfing deaths a year but in the last study we saw about one lightning death a year associated with golfing. The golfing community has become more aware of the dangers of lightning. The general rule of lightning safety is when you hear thunder get inside immediately—When Thunder Roars Go Indoors. The activities where it’s difficult to get inside immediately are the ones that present the most risk at this point. If you’re on a boat fishing in a river and you hear thunder it’s going to be difficult to get inside immediately. The most important thing is to not put yourself at risk, if there are thunder storms in the forecast and you know you can’t get to a safe place quickly then just don’t go. Make sure you avoid situations in which you are unable to get to a safe place.
What exactly constitutes a safe place?
A safe place is a substantial building that has wiring or plumbing, because when lightning strikes a building it tends to follow the wiring and plumbing to the ground and leave the people safe inside. Occasionally lightning can follow a chimney to the ground, and sometimes lightning will start a fire in a house. If your house is struck by lightning you should call the Fire Department because the lightning may have sparked a fire inside the walls that you might not be aware of. Obviously you don’t want to be connected to any plumbing, so if there’s lightning around you don’t want to be showering or washing dishes. Also, stay away from doors and windows because they have metal components that allow electricity to be conducted from outside the home to inside the home, like a doorknob for example. The same with a vehicle, when cars get struck lightning follows the metal inside and fries the electronics and exits through the ground but the people are safe—I just talked to a deputy police officer in Fort Meyers, Florida whose vehicle was struck by lightning.
How does a lightning strike work?
If you ever watch lightning in a cloud those fork or vein-like features are reaching to make a connection and the first one to do so discharges the entire channel in that spot. Typically once the first connection is made the entire channel including all the branches will be discharged through that initial connection point. So the electrical charge starts in the cloud and moves toward the ground. As the charge nears the ground it connects with a streamer coming off the ground. Because tall trees are closer to the sky it is often something like a tall tree. If you’re in the Midwest it might be the top of a house. If you’re in an open field it could be you.
Weather forecasting has improved in the past 30 years, do you think lightning foresting will improve to the point where we know exactly where lightning will strike as a storm approaches?
If you look at a flash of lightning in the sky each zigzag you see is going about 150 feet then jumping ahead another 150 feet then another 150 feet. Each one is not random it is based on the conductivity of the air in that immediate area. There’s no way we will ever be able to predict that. Also, the whole thing is coming down at about 200,000 mph. Once the connection is made the entire channel is discharged in a very bright flash, which is what we see as lightning. A typical discharge has enough energy to power a 100 watt light bulb for about three months. But lightning is too unpredictable to try and capture that energy.
How does one actually die when struck by lightning?
The main concern is the amount of electricity running through the body. Lightning is about 200 to 300 million volts whereas household current is more like 120 or 240 volts. Your body and your neurons are just not designed for that kind of electricity. There are all kinds of neurological problems that can occur because of lightning. The immediate concern with a lightning strike is that the heart has stopped. Lightning disrupts the normal beating of the heart, it disrupts the brain too, it disrupts everything. The most important thing is to check that a person has a pulse and is breathing. Begin CPR right away and if a defibrillator is available use that, too.
Where is the most dangerous place on earth lightning-wise?
Undeveloped countries are unsafe because people don’t really have safe places to go. I think two years ago there was a case where 22 children and 1 teacher were killed in a lightning strike at a school in Uganda. It is pretty common to see multiple deaths in villages in third world countries. Lightning will strike a house that doesn’t have any plumbing or wiring and it spreads along the ground and kills a lot of people.