Another lightning fatality in the U.S.- how to stay safe
Can you name the biggest weather killers in the United States? Tornadoes? Hurricanes? Take a guess.
(Letting you think)
All right, here’s your answer. You might be surprised: flooding is the biggest killer on an annual basis, typically killing 85 Americans a year, followed closely by tornadoes (75) and then, yes, lightning, with 51 deaths caused annually by those beautiful yet deadly bolts (hurricanes are fourth with 47 deaths caused annually on average).
Lightning has killed 15 people so far this year in the U.S., with Florida (6) holding the unfortunate distinction as the national leader.
Yes, the chances of lightning hitting you are small (a one in 12,000 chance over your lifetime in the U.S.), but as a meteorologist, it’s always hard to hear of such deaths because they’re typically very preventable. Most people struck are taking part in outdoor recreation activities (hiking, running, walking) when they get hit. Lightning can strike over 20 miles away from the heart of a storm, so always remember the adage:
WHEN THUNDER ROARS, HEAD INDOORS!
Trust me- it’s the right thing to do. Don’t question it, don’t ‘tough it out’. Just go inside and ride out the storm.
As I spoke about on WeatherNation TV today, I personally had a fairly frightening encounter last summer with lightning. While hiking Colorado’s Mt. Bierstadt (peak elevation: 14,065′) last June, three friends and I were caught in a nasty storm. Just minutes and perhaps a few hundred feet from the summit, a thunderstorm – completely out of nowhere – developed right on top of us and turned the sky from blue to black in the span of about five minutes. Pelted by golf ball-sized hail and surrounded by lightning bolts, we literally could not have chosen a worse location to spend a thunderstorm in – high in elevation, completely exposed and miles from any shelter (pictures below).
The tree line was thousands of feet below us, but, mostly out of instinct, everyone hiking the mountain that day chose to sprint down (not the right thing to do). After a hectic few minutes in the storm, I eventually talked my three friends into hunkering down below a group of rocks to help make us a lower point from lightning (lightning bolts, rather simplistically, are attracted to the highest point, so putting yourself as close to the ground and away from other high points like trees or poles is always the best and safest bet if you’re caught outside). They eventually panicked and we sprinted off a few minutes later again, but fortunately, neither one of us or anyone we saw on the mountain that day was hurt, but it was certainly a spooky experience. Two hikers in Colorado have already been killed by storms this year – both this month.
July is the time to make sure you don’t take lightning – or thunderstorms – lightly. Stay safe and stay weather aware this summer!
And remember, when thunder roars, head indoors!
Lucky Meteorologist Chris Bianchi