USA saw fewest lightning deaths on record in 2013

4:15 PM, Jan 11, 2014   |    comments
Lightning flashes over the Las Vegas Strip during a thunderstorm early on September 13, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The year 2013 set a record for the fewest lightning deaths in a year in the USA. There were 23 fatalities directly attributed to lightning, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The previous record low was in 2011, which had 26 deaths. Accurate lightning death records go back 73 years to 1940.

"Florida and Arizona led the nation in 2013 lightning deaths with four each; followed by Texas, Illinois and Kentucky with two each," said meteorologist and lightning expert John Jensenius of the weather service. "Nine other states contributed one death each."

Florida usually sees the most deaths per year. In particular, central Florida is the lightning capital of the USA, typically having more than 100 days with thunderstorms each year.

Last year, victims' ages ranged from 8 to 66.

Over the past 30 years, about 52 people on average die each year from lightning strikes. Going way back, in the 1940s, hundreds of people were killed each year by lightning; in 1943 alone, 432 people died.

"While we don't like to see any lightning deaths, the continuing reduction in yearly fatalities is encouraging," Jensenius said.

Why the huge drop in deaths, especially compared with decades ago, even though the population is more than twice what it was then? "Comparisons show that the decrease in lightning risk to people coincides with a shift in population from rural to urban regions," wrote meteorologist Ronald Holle in an article in the Journal of Applied Meteorology.

"There were many, many more small farmers who were out working in fields," Jensenius said, which resulted in many more chances to be struck by lightning.

Other reasons for the drop in lightning-related fatalities over the years:

•All phones were corded, and there were quite a few deaths due to people speaking on the phone.

•Better lightning protection, suppression and grounding in electrical and phone lines.

•More concern and awareness of lightning safety, due in part to advances in media communication.

•Medical advances in treating lightning strike victims.

Last year was also a relatively quiet year in the USA for severe thunderstorms, which produce large hail, tornadoes or very strong winds. Could this have been a factor in the record low number of lightning deaths?

"I have never tried to correlate the two; however, I doubt that there'd be much of a correlation," Jensenius said. "Very few lightning deaths seem to occur during 'severe' weather. As for non-severe thunderstorms, overall, the number of thunderstorms doesn't vary much from year to year across the United States, so I don't think there's much of a correlation there either."

In 2013, according to Jensenius, of the 23 deaths, 17 were male and 6 were female. This is a fairly typical average: During the period from 2006-12, males accounted for 82% of all lightning deaths in the USA.

About 10% of people struck by lightning are killed, according to weather service data, while the remaining 90% are left with varying levels of disability. A lightning strike can cause acute trauma to the nervous system and impact a victim's memory and personality.

The weather service reminds that there is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. According to Weather Channel severe weather expert Greg Forbes, the safest places to be if lightning threatens are inside a building with plumbing and wiring or inside a metal-bodied and metal-roofed vehicle.

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