Reality Check

Reality Check

Vets the truthfulness of claims and measures the efficacy of public policy

Reality Check: With Rash of Lightning Deaths - Are They On the Rise?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In this edition of Reality Check, Sam Brock looks at the facts behind lightning-related deaths in the United States.

    Lightning strikes have generated a lot of media attention recently. In just the last week, the storm activity has jumped to fever pitch.

    The most high-profile tragedy involves two people fatally struck at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in separate incidents over the weekend. But In South Florida, two men were hit and survived; In Oregon, lightning has been identified as the culprit in a number of heavy wildfires; lightning storms savaged a school in Maryland; and parkgoers even report lightning shutting down the monorail and forcing evacuations at Disney World.

    While there are no questions about the dangers of lightning, what are the actual odds that humans face of being fatally struck by lightning?

    Small, incredibly small.

    The lifetime odds of a person being killed by lightning are one in 136,000, according to the research by the National Safety Council (NSC).

    That number by itself probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but when compared to the odds of dying other ways, it becomes crystal clear that the risk posed by lightning isn’t that high. The NSC fact sheet shows the lifetime odds of dying from the following causes are all higher than dying from a bolt of lightning:

    • Bitten or struck by a dog (1 in 103,798)
    • Cataclysmic storm (1 in 83,922)
    • Air and space transport incident (1 in 8,357)
    • Exposure to fire, flames, or smoke (1 in 1,418)
    • Motor vehicle incidents (1 in 112)
    • Chronic lower respiratory disease (1 in 29)
    • Heart disease and cancer (1 in 7)

    NBC Bay Area spoke with Daniel Ostrov, a Santa Clara University mathematics professor, who further illustrated how low the chances are of being killed by lightning.

    Ostrov said, “it’s approximately equal to their chance of taking a deck of cards, pulling out the Ace of Spades, and then taking a second deck of cards and pulling out the Ace of Spades from that also, and then taking a third deck of cards and pulling out the Ace of Spades from that deck as well.”

    More to the point, lightning fatalities are also on the decline.

    Logan Johnson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Monterey, told NBC Bay Area that the deaths in Colorado represented the 11th and 12th lightning-related fatalities of 2014.

    Compare that with the 30-year average of annual deaths, 51, and the gap becomes apparent.

    “In years past, we’ve seen that many fatalities in one month, *alone,” Johnson said. “So only having 12 for the whole year is a step in the right direction.”

    He stressed that each death is incredibly unfortunate and that recreational enthusiasts and hikers should maintain caution, especially when spending time in high elevations.

    Nonetheless, a lightning death occurrence in the Bay Area is a rare thing, particularly given our placement in the Pacific Northwest.

    “Because we have so few lightning strikes [in the Bay Area], we could go through the course of several months or even years without having lightning strike in a certain area,” Johnson said. “People could live here for possibly several years, and not hear thunder.”