More than just a bolt from the blue; welcome to the wild world of lightning strikes.
The year was 1969 when Steve Marshburn was struck by lightning. He wasn’t out golfing or fishing, he was working inside a bank. Lightning found a path through an underground speaker at the drive-through window and worked its way to the stool where he sat.
"I still have the migraines," Marshburn told NPR. "The lightning – when it hit my back, it went up my spine, went to the left side of my brain and scorched it, came down, went out my right hand that was holding a metal teller stamp."
Which goes to show, lightning is an unruly beast; heard to predict and filled with surprises. And according to the National Weather Service, so far this year lightning strikes have killed at least 20 people in the United States, which is almost double the norm. Behind those strikes are some pretty wild facts. Consider the following:
1. Lightning strikes the United States about 25 million times a year. Although most lightning occurs in the summer, people can be struck at any time of year.
2. The idea of a lightning bolt finding and striking a person directly seems so random, but in fact, most people who were hurt or injured weren’t struck directly. People can fall victim to lightning striking a nearby object when the current jumps, as well as through conduction and ground current.
3. Because ground current strikes affect a much larger area than the other causes of lightning casualties – the current travels over the surface of the ground – this type causes the most lightning deaths and injuries. It's especially bad for livestock.
4. As evidenced by Marshburn’s experience, you don't have to be outside to be harmed by nearby lightning.
5. Brain injuries are the more common injury – rather than burns – from lightning strikes.
6. Lightning strikes can create enduring lifelong discomfort because they cause nerve damage that makes the nerves misfire, which the brain reads as pain.
7. Even though strikes are up this year, the number is much less than in the 1940s when 300 to 400 people died annually. John Jensenius from the National Weather Service explains, "Most homes had corded phones. So a corded phone, when people held it right up to their head, was a direct connection with wires outside." Also, more farmers sitting on open tractors added to the numbers.
8. While people think golfers are at highest risk, between 2006 and 2014, people fishing accounted for more than three times as many deaths as golfers, while camping and boating each were responsible for almost two times as many deaths as golf.
9. During the same period, the majority of victims were male between the ages of 10 to 60; almost two thirds of them were engaged in outdoor leisure activities before being struck.
10. To measure the distance of lightning, count the seconds between flash and thunder and divide by five; the number is how many miles the lightning is from you.
11. During thunderstorms, lightning can strike up to 10 miles away. That distance is when you can just begin to hear thunder, which is why safety experts urge us to go inside as soon as we hear a distant rumble. Many victims have been either heading to safety at the time of the fatal strike or were just steps away from safety.
In addition, follow these safety tips from the National Weather Service:
- When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter: a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows up.
- Stay in safe shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.
- Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.
- Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.
- Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
- Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls.
If you are caught outside with no safe shelter anywhere nearby the following actions may reduce your risk:
- Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks.
- Never lie flat on the ground.
- Never shelter under an isolated tree.
- Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.
- Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water.
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.).
And in a story on lightning in The Week, Charlotte Huff also recommends to "look for a ravine or a depression. Spread out your group, with at least 20 feet between each person, to reduce the risk of multiple injuries. Don't lie down, which boosts your exposure to ground current. There's even a recommended lightning position: crouched down, keeping the feet close together."
This updated story was originally published in 2015.