Lightning is nothing to mess with; killed 352 people in US from 2006-’16
Thunderstorm season rolled in with spring as usual this year, but bringing with it an early tragedy to a Colorado family, when a Douglas County woman was struck by lightning, killing both her and the horse she was riding, and injuring another young rider with her.
Severe lightning storms and tragedies like this are not uncommon. A total of 38 people died from lightning strikes last year in the U.S. That’s the most since 2007 when 45 people died, and the 10-year average is 30 deaths, according to National Weather Service data. June, July and August see the most fatalities, with July leading the three. Along with these tragedies, an unknown number of animals die each year from lightning strikes.
The National Lightning Detection Network, owned by Vaisala, Inc., measures cloud-to-ground lightning flashes. Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas are the top five in density by state from 2007 to 2016, with Florida at 1,193,735 average flashes per year, and 20.8 per square mile. Kansas came in ninth, with 1,059,261 averaged per year, Nebraska 18th averaging 773,204, and Colorado 29th averaging 514,957.
According to reports, more than 2,000 thunderstorms are active throughout the world at any given moment, producing up to 100 flashes per second.
Lightening is nothing to mess around with. Estimates vary, but it is believed that lightning causes as many as 4,000 deaths worldwide, and millions of dollars in property damage. From 2006–2016, a total of 352 people were struck and killed in the U.S. “Almost two-thirds of the deaths occurred to people who had been enjoying outdoor leisure activities,” said John S. Jensenius Jr., Lightning Safety Specialist with the National Weather Service. “The common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth. During this 11-year period, fisherman accounted for more than three times as many fatalities as golfers, while beach activities and camping each accounted for at least twice as many deaths as golf.”
FARMERS AND RANCHERS
According to Jensenius, ranching/farming lightning deaths topped the work-related incidents with 17 deaths. Based on the incident reports, many of the victims were headed to safety.
“Continued efforts are needed to convince people to get inside a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant,” Jensenius added.
Scientists studying electric charged storms are still pondering the mysteries, but the safety experts and scientists do concur on one conclusion:
“There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, ‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.’ Too many people wait far too long to get to a safe place when thunderstorms approach. Unfortunately, these delayed actions lead to many of the lightning deaths and injuries in the United States,” the National Weather Center warned.
The “crouch,” which was once a recommended position in a lightning storm has been replaced with a new safety plan.
“The crouch simply doesn’t provide a significant level of protection. Whether you’re standing or in the crouch position, if a lightning channel approaches from directly overhead (or very nearly so), you’re very likely to be struck and either killed or injured by the lightning strike,” Jensenius said.
Rather than “what to do in a dangerous situation” the National Weather Service recommendations focus on “what to do so you don’t get into a dangerous situation,” and, “if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, how to get out of the dangerous situation.”
WATCH THE WEATHER
Plan ahead. (that includes knowing where you’ll go for safety)
Listen to the forecast.
Cancel or postpone activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast.
Monitor weather conditions.
Take action early so you have time to get to a safe place.
Get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before threatening weather arrives.
If you hear thunder, get to the safe place immediately.
And if you do find yourself in a situation with no cover?
“While there may be nothing you can do to lower your risk significantly, there are things you should avoid which would actually increase the risk of being struck,” Jensenius said.
Avoid open areas.
Don’t be near the tallest objects in the area.
Don’t shelter under tall or isolated trees.
In the woods, put as much distance between you and any tree.
If in a group, spread out so that you increase the chances for survivors who could come to the aid of any victims from a lightning strike.
Last year, a crazy lightning storm in Norway took out 323 reindeer, that were likely huddled together, according to reports. While the number was shocking, animals killed by lightning strikes is not unusual. In August last year, 19 cows were killed in East Texas, all standing under a tree, in 1990, 30 cows were killed in Virginia, and in 2005, 68 cows reportedly died from a lightning strike in Australia.
While the human chance of being struck by lightning in a year’s time is about one in a million, according the National Weather Service, and one in 12,000 over your lifetime, there is no known answer on the odds for animals, in part, because of lack of information and studies.
It is estimated by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University that hundreds of animals are killed annually by lightning. According to department spokesman Brent McRoberts, “the Department of Agriculture says lightning causes about 80 percent of all accidental livestock deaths.”
The National Weather Service said the best protection from lightning is a fully enclosed building, and that includes animals. Not always an option, but something to think about for the four-legged equine family.
What if you happen to get caught on a trail ride? Experts said, the best way to stay safe from lightning on the trail is to avoid getting caught out when a storm rolls through.
Awareness is key; if you are within 10 miles of a storm, you are at risk. But if there is no cover option, getting off of high points, including your horse is the next step, but stay out of stream beds or low-lying areas. Tie the horse to a bush, not a tree, and move at least 50 feet away, and wait until the storm has passed for at least 15 minutes. If you are at a show, or arena, and there is no shelter, put your horse in the trailer (ramp up), and wait the storm out in the vehicle.
Remember, there’s no three-strike rule with lightning. One strike and you are out. ❖
— Eatherton is a freelance writer from Beaulah, Wyo. When she’s not writing, she’s riding her horse or playing with her grandson. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.