Severe Weather Awareness Week: Lightning

Lightning is dangerous and deadly. It is the cause, on average, of 51 deaths each year in the US. Lightning is the second highest weather killer. Flood is the highest.

We’re getting better at taking precautions, though. There has been a downward trend in lightning deaths and injuries during the last few years. This is probably due to the fact that more people are taking lightning seriously and taking precautions when they hear thunder.

Lightning has a mortality rate of 20% to 30%. Those that survive a lightning strike are often seriously injured and often suffer from these injuries for the rest of their lives. There is no such thing as a minor lightning strike.

A lightning strike can injure people in several different ways:

  1. Direct strike – the person is part of a flash channel. Enormous quantities of energy pass through the body very quickly, resulting in internal burns, organ damage, explosions of flesh and bone, and nervous system damage. Depending on the flash strength and access to medical services, it may be instantaneously fatal or cause permanent injury and impairment.
  2. Contact injury – an object, generally a conductor, is electrified by a strike that a person was touching.
  3. Side splash – branches of currents “jumping” from the primary flash channel, electrify the person.
  4. Ground current or “step potential” – Earth surface charges race towards the flash channel during discharge. Because the ground has high impedance, the current “chooses” a better conductor, often a person’s legs, passing through the body. The near-instantaneous rate of discharge causes a potential (difference) over distance, which may amount to several thousand volts per linear foot. This phenomenon is responsible for more injuries and deaths than the above three combined, with reports such as “hundreds of reindeer killed by a lightning storm…” being a classic example.
  5. EMPs – the discharge process produces an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which may damage an artificial pacemaker, or otherwise affect normal biological processes.
  6. Blast injuries – being thrown and suffering blunt force trauma from the shock wave (if very close) and possible hearing damage from the thunder.
LIGHTNING STRIKES GOLF COURSE in Washington County PA last year. No one was injured but the lightning left a clear trail as it spread out and dissipated. Ground currents can kill you just as dead as a direct hit.


Fact: ALL thunderstorms produce lightning – hence the name thunderstorm. There is no safe place outdoors during a thunderstorm. The old adage of lying flat or getting to a ditch does not work. Ground current remains a threat. YOU MUST FIND SUITABLE SHELTER as soon as you hear thunder -whether it is raining or not.


Suitable shelter includes a substantial building. The building should contain electric and plumbing. A vehicle – truck, car, van, etc is an acceptable shelter provided that it has a metal roof. If you have a choice between a dugout at the ball field or your car, choose your car. Remain sheltered until 30 minutes have passed since you last hear thunder.


  • Heat Lightning is harmless – FACT: Heat Lightning is not a thing. Lightning is lightning. What we call heat lightning is just lightning farther away than the sound (thunder) can travel.
  • If you’re caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your risk of being struck – FACT: Crouching down makes no difference. You are not safe outdoors and must find shelter either in a building or a metal vehicle.
  • Lightning never strikes the same place twice – FACT: BS, Lightning often strikes tall buildings repeatedly. Think Empire State Building in New York of Willis Tower in Chicago. Both of these structures easily prove this not to be true.
  • If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning – FACTLightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.
  • Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground – FACTMost cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground.
  • If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry – FACT: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!
  • If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter – FACT: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.

When thunder roars – get indoors.



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