They’re synonymous with once-in-a-lifetime events, often used to describe the proliferation of a great idea, but lightning strikes aren’t as rare as you might think.
According to the National Weather Service, lightning strikes hit the United States more than 25 million times a year, and while the risk of a person being struck by lightning is incredibly unlikely, it’s not impossible.
On average, about 20 people die by lightning strikes each year, according to the National Weather Service. In 2021, eleven people lost their lives from lightning strikes, including one person in California.
But following the death of a woman and her two dogs from a lightning strike in Pico Rivera Wednesday morning, many people might be wondering how this could’ve happened and how to avoid a similar fate.
What is lightning?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lightning is “a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground.” It’s one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on Earth and can be seen during storms, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, winter storms and even nuclear blasts.
Lightning can have anywhere from 100 million to 1 billion volts, and strikes contain billions of watts of power. A lightning strike can heat the surrounding air up to 18,000-60,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
A person can be struck by lightning in five different ways, the most common coming in the form of “direct strikes,” which often happen in open areas.
Who gets struck by lightning?
A detailed analysis of fatal lightning strikes by the National Lightning Safety Council says 418 people were struck and killed by lightning between 2006 and 2019. Among those, almost two-thirds of those people killed by lightning were enjoying a leisurely activity outdoors.
The highest percentage of deaths came from people who were fishing when they were struck by lightning. During the 13-year time period, 40 fishermen were killed by lightning strikes, 25 people died while at the beach, 20 people were killed while camping and 18 died while boating.
Soccer and golf were the sports that put people at most risk, while activities like yardwork and work-related activities accounted for 37 deaths combined.
Of all 418 lightning deaths, 79% were men, according to the Safety Council’s findings, and most deadly lightning strikes came during the summer months, which are considered “peak months” for lightning strikes.
When thunder roars, go indoors
You may have grown up counting the time between a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning, hoping to figure out how far away a storm might be. But did you know that if you can hear thunder, you’re already at risk of getting struck by lightning?
When thunderstorms are in the area, no place outside is safe, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. If you’re able to get inside, avoid electronics, plumbing and stay away from windows and doors, as well as outdoor patios.
But what if you see lightning and you can’t get indoors? The NWS says to get away from elevated areas like hills and rocks, stay away from ponds and lakes, and don’t take shelter underneath a lone tree or a “rocky overhang.”
If your only option is to get inside a vehicle, make sure the vehicle has a hard top and remain inside until at least 30 minutes after hearing the last sounds of thunder.
And even if you’re quite a bit away from any rainfall, you can still get hit by lightning. Lightning strikes can happen as far as 10 miles from any precipitation, according to NWS.
Reducing the risk of being struck by lightning
The National Weather Service has suggestions for how to reduce the chance of getting struck by lightning.
Tips include avoiding open areas, staying away from metal conductors like wires and fences, spreading out when in a large group, and avoiding being “the tallest object in the area,” as lightning tends to strike the things that are closest to sky.
Most importantly, know before you go. If the local forecast warns of thunderstorms in the area, it might be best to find a safer indoor activity.
What to do if someone is struck by lightning
If you’re with someone who gets struck by lightning, you should immediately call 911.
If you’re trained, perform CPR and use an automated external defibrillator, aka, an AED. And despite what you’ve heard, lightning can strike the same place twice, so move the person to a safer location if you can.
What are the actual chances of getting struck by lightning?
Your chances of being struck by lightning are low, but probably not as low as you think.
In a given year, the average American has a 1 in 1.2 million chance of being struck by lightning. Sounds pretty good, right? Well over the course of your entire life, that likelihood can increase to 1 in 15,300.
Of those people who get struck by lightning, only about 10% die from their injuries, but almost all of the survivors have long-term health issues, including many that can be debilitating.
Still the odds of dying by lightning is unlikely, but it can and does happen. So it’s best to take the proper precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones.
For more information about lightning strikes, protecting yourself, your home and other safety tips, click here.