Lightning kills: Which outdoor activity ranks no. 1 for fatal strikes?

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather staff writer

During the warmest months of the year, an increase in thunderstorms along with more people venturing outdoors to engage in their favorite summer pastimes leads to deadly lightning strikes every year.

Leisure activities account for two-thirds of all lightning-related fatalities in the United States each year.

While the odds of getting struck by a fiery bolt from the sky in any given year is approximately one in 1.1 million, the odds of getting hit in a lifetime is around one in 13,500, according to NOAA Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius.

"There are three things to consider [for lightning deaths related to outdoor activities]," Jensenius said. "[The victims] are often out in the open, are some distance from safety and need to take action early."

Fishing is the most common outdoor activity for lightning deaths with 33 recorded fatalities between 2006 and 2016. Nearly all of the fishing-related fatalities were men, Jensenius added, which is a pattern that is common among all of lightning related deaths.

Males account for 79 percent of all lightning fatalities, and 90 percent of fishing and sports related fatalities, according to NOAA's official lightning safety report, penned by Jensenius.

Kansas lightning

Lightning strikes near the barn on the Taylor farm near Lawrence, Kan., Monday, March 6, 2017. The area fell under a severe thunderstorm warning at the time. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

"This is something we see throughout with men's behavior in general," he said. "Men are less likely to take action early."

The highest category for women was boating at 37.5 percent, which resulted in 16 lightning fatalities over the 11-year time frame.

Despite notable decreases in recent years, a large spike occurred in 2016 with 38 lightning related fatalities, the highest since 2007.

Overall, lightning deaths on a year-to-year average have significantly declined as more people become aware of the dangers, Jensenius said.

Increased awareness along with safer farming equipment, a shift in U.S. agricultural activities and even wireless telephones have all contributed to this reduction, Jensenius said. From the 1940s to the 1970s, farming activities were one of the highest in recorded fatalities.

Peak days for lightning activity occur through June, July and August when most people are engaging in outdoor activities, resulting in 70 percent of the annual reported fatalities.

Lightning will strike the highest object in any given area, but Jensenius warned it is best to avoid being out in the open. Preparedness is the best defense and can significantly reduce your odds of getting struck by lightning, he added.

"It's always better to run as fast as you can to safety," he said.

Even if it not possible to get to shelter right away, spending a partial amount of the storm's duration under shelter still reduces your risk, he said.

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Lightning can strike at a distance of 10 miles from a storm, making it imperative to head to safety as soon as the sound of distant thunder roars. Safe areas include hard-top metal vehicles and fully enclosed structures, ideally with plumbing and electrical wiring.

Rain shelters and open pavilions provide no safety from lightning as it travels throughout the ground, Jensenius added.

"If hiking in a group for example, it is recommended people spread out [during a thunderstorm]," Jensenius said.

While very little can be done to reduce your chances of getting struck by lightning when trapped in the open during a storm, more people with distance between them can provide assistance if one of the group members does get struck, he added.

“There’s not a lot you can do, so you would need to avoid standing under or near a tall tree, standing out in the open, and you don’t want to be on a hill; you don’t want to increase your risk," he said.

More information about lightning and lightning safety can be found by visiting NOAA’s official lightning safety website.

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