WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Lightning: The underrated killer

Posted March 2, 2010
Updated February 7, 2011

One of my favorite parts of the job of meteorologist is talking to students. When I go on school visits, I usually stress ways to stay safe during severe weather.

I often start my talk by asking the students what they think is the most deadly kind of weather in the U.S. The number one answer I get is tornadoes, followed by hurricanes and then winter storms. Rarely do I hear flooding and lightning. However, they are the number one and two weather related killers.

We’re fortunate in N.C. to have few tornadoes relative to Midwest states. But we are not immune to flooding or lightning. I’ll leave flooding for another day, but neither of these phenomenon tend to strike fear into most of us.

We’re just around lightning so much in our area that we generally don’t pay it much attention. As a society, we’ve gone so far as to compare something unlikely to the chance of being struck by lightning. And, there’s the old adage that lightning never strikes the same place twice. It gives people a false sense of security because lightning is likely to strike the same high spot over and over. The bottom line is it’s inconvenient to protect yourself from lightning every time you are near it. Even with all I know about the dangers of lightning, it’s tempting to run from the car to the house in the middle of a storm. However, in North Carolina, that happens far too often, and our statistics reflect that.

Here in the Tarheel state, lightning is an important weather hazard. Thunderstorms here generate an average of more than 500,000 cloud-to-ground flashes every year, and the National Weather Service in Raleigh estimates that central N.C. receives about 9-12 flashes per square mile each year. While definitive statistics on the number of people struck by lightning and injured in our state are hard to come by, the number of deaths is known to a better degree. During the 10 year span from 1998-2007, for example, North Carolina suffered 19 deaths due to lightning strikes, for an average of almost 2 per year. Of course, it's variable, and 2003 was an especially bad year with 5 fatalities. The statistics here lead to a ranking of 5th in the nation when it comes to raw numbers (behind Florida, Texas, Colorado and Georgia). On the other hand, when you factor in population, we come in 16th in the country in yearly lightning deaths per million people.

We enjoy being outside in N.C. We have a lot of farmers, golfers, fisherfolk and other outdoor enthusiasts, so our numbers are relatively high. The best rule of thumb to stay safe during lightning is when you can hear thunder, it’s time to get to a safe place. That is relatively easy. Inside a building or a car is a good place to be. If you can’t get to either, stay away from the tallest thing around such as a lone tree or powerpole. Crouch down in a low place, and stay there until the lightning passes.

A couple of years ago, I heard a sad story. A high school soccer team was practicing during a thunderstorm. I can almost hear the coach now saying something like "We’ve got a big game tomorrow. We’ve got to get this last set of drills in before we quit.” The coach and a player were both struck by lightning and killed. It can happen to you. However, it’s fairly easy to stay safe in lighting if you have a little patience.

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