5 ways you can be struck by lightning -- and only 1 involves a direct strike
By Heather Schlitz , AccuWeather staff writer
Any way of being struck by lightning can potentially kill or injure someone, resulting in cardiac arrest or damage to the neurological system, but the way someone is struck may also impact the kind of injuries that individual might suffer.
The danger of a lightning strike depends on a slew of factors, including where a person is when the individual is struck, the kind of object someone’s holding or even the amount of water on the person's skin. When lightning strikes someone, most of the current flashes across the surface of person's skin, with only a small fraction entering someone’s body.
“It's such an overwhelming amount of energy that not all of it can go through the person,” John Jensenius, the National Weather Service’s lightning safety expert, told AccuWeather. “It's like taking a gallon bucket of water and in three seconds trying to pour it all through a straw.”
The electricity that does enters a person’s body can cause devastating neurological damage, including memory loss, chronic pain and seizures in addition to the relatively superficial burns on the outside of someone’s skin. About 10% of people struck by lightning are killed.
The overall risk of being struck by lightning is very low, with odds of one in 15,300 of being hit in your lifetime (defined as 80 years), according to the National Weather Service. And you can keep that risk low by remaining vigilant and taking proper safety precautions when lightning is a risk in your area.
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Getting hit directly by a lightning bolt and becoming part of the main channel of electricity flowing from the cloud to the ground is one of the least common ways to be struck by lightning, Mary Ann Cooper, director of the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said. This type of lightning strike usually occurs in open spaces. Though some theorize direct strikes may be more deadly than other ways of being struck, Cooper said there’s no data about lightning deaths and injuries from different kinds of lightning strikes to back up such claims.
A ground current, the electricity that flows through the ground away from the point where lightning strikes, puts anyone nearby the strike at risk of shock. Ground currents affect a much larger area than other types of strikes, and Cooper estimates they cause around half of all lightning injuries and deaths.
Though Jensenius doesn’t know how far away from a strike a person must be to be safe from a ground current, he suspects that the farther away someone is from the point of the strike, the safer they are. He said lightning may spread out evenly across the ground if it strikes moist soil and that it may spread farther, but in a jagged line, if it strikes dry, non-conductive soil.
Ground currents can affect large swathes of land and cause massive amounts of damage. A ground current likely caused the deaths of more than 300 reindeer on the hillside of a mountain plateau in Norway in 2016. The 323 corpses from the reindeer herd lay splayed on the ground in Hardangervidda after a summer storm, most dead from cardiac arrest.
Side flashes occur when lightning strikes an object, like a tree or pole, and part of the current jumps out to hit a person standing within a few feet of the object. According to the National Weather Service, side flashes usually happen when people take shelter from a storm underneath a tree.
The electrical current from side flashes can last longer than direct strikes, causing deeper burns as the current takes longer to course through the body, Raphael Lee, professor of surgery and medicine at the University of Chicago and clinical investigator at the Chicago Electrical Trauma Rehabilitation Institute, explained to AccuWeather.
“The current penetrates more deeply and can have a significant effect directly into the body,” he said.
Conduction, when lightning travels through metal surfaces like wires, plumbing, water faucets, windows and doors, is the biggest risk to people who are indoors, Jensenius said. Conduction is often a risk to people when in their garages, as garage floors are often made with concrete, a somewhat conductive material, and are reinforced with wire or rebar.
Lightning occurs when a negatively charged stepped leader, an invisible electrical channel, zigzags to the ground and connects with a positively charged channel moving upward through a tall object, known as a streamer. The current and multiple return strokes flowing between the two produces lightning flashes. People caught in streamers can be at risk for injury and death.
The number of yearly lightning deaths in the U.S. has been cut in half since 1996, but for Cooper, the next challenge is decreasing lightning deaths in developing countries where few lightning-safe structures exist and masses of people die both indoors and outside from lightning. Her organization, ACLENet, works with governments and organizations in developing countries to build lightning-safe buildings, document lightning strikes and educate people on lightning safety.
“It took us 30 years to decrease the lightning deaths in the United States,” Cooper said. “It's probably going to take several generations in these other countries.”
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