Ronald L. Holle1, Raul E. Lopez1, R. James Vavrek2, and Kenneth W. Howard1

1National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA

Norman, Oklahoma 73069

2Eggers Middle School

Hammond, Indiana 46320


Watches, warnings, public statements, advisories and similar products are issued for major meteorological hazards by the National Weather Service through media outlets to the public. During the summer, the dangers from thunderstorm winds, tornadoes, hail, and heavy rain are tracked and warned. Hurricanes and tropical storms, flash floods and heat waves also are major subjects of forecasts and warnings during the warm season. During winter, guidance is given about the important threats from snow, blizzards, freezing rain, low temperatures, and wind chill.

Nevertheless, the summaries of weather-related fatalities continue to show lightning as the second most frequent killer in the United States (Figure 1). When an underreporting of lightning deaths by 25 to 30% is taken into account (Mogil et al., 1977; Lopez et al., 1995; Lushine, 1996), about 100 people a year are killed by lightning in the U.S.

National Weather Service annual summaries for several recent years report that an additional 325 to 500 people a year are injured by lightning. When an underreporting of injuries on the order of 40% is taken into account, as found in Colorado by Lopez et al. (1995), it is likely that more than 500 people a year are injured by lightning in the U.S. Recently, Florida alone has been found to have more than 100 injuries per year (Paxton and Morales, 1997).

The number of lightning casualties, which is the sum of deaths and injuries combined, does not change much from year to year. The annual death tolls from tornadoes and hurricanes are usually dependent on a few major events, but the annual totals of lightning deaths are due to single deaths from a large number of events. For example, 91% of the lightning incidents in the United States since 1959 involving only deaths had one fatality; the corresponding number for injuries is 68% (Curran et al., 1997).

Corresponding author: Ronald Holle, National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA, 1313 Halley Circle, Norman, OK 73069. Email:

FIGURE 1. Average annual number of storm-related deaths in the United States from 1966 to 1995.


The scope of the lightning hazard is now better understood than had been the case in the past. From 1992 to 1995, the National Lightning Detection Network identified an average of 21,746,000 cloud-to-ground flashes per year in the U.S. (Orville, 1991; Orville and Silver, 1997). It has been found that lightning strikes the ground in most locations of the country each year. It also occurs every day in the summer, and on all but a few days during the rest of the year. Given that lightning strikes the ground in such large numbers and is so widespread, it is not possible to expect specific warnings for every lightning flash for each person. Indeed, lightning-specific warnings are not issued regularly in the U.S. except at highly vulnerable locations such as at the Kennedy Space Center, at golf tournaments, and a few other situations.

Taking into account the nature of the single-victim event, it seems most appropriate to provide education to the public so that direct responsibility for personal safety from the lightning hazard is taken by each individual. The problem is compounded by the fact that many people experience and survive a close lightning strike every year. The event may have been while safely inside a building or a vehicle, or outside in a vulnerable situation. These experiences also lead to a tendency to take chances. Since all lightning strikes can kill a person, it can be stated that:

Lightning is the most dangerous and frequently-encountered weather hazard that most people experience each year.


Relevant new knowledge about lightning includes real-time measurement of flashes by the National Lightning Detection Network. These data have been used in climatologies to describe the lightning risk for Colorado and Florida (Lopez and Holle, 1986), New Mexico (Fosdick and Watson, 1994), Arizona (Watson et al., 1994; Lopez et al., 1997), and the summer Olympics (Watson and Holle, 1996). Lightning network data are also being used to determine distances between successive flashes. Knowing these distances will improve safety plans, such as the use of the flash-to-bang method. Additional understanding is needed about what constitutes safe shelter from lightning, such as buildings and vehicles. Results then need to be synthesized into concepts that are easily understood by individuals, and applied to schools, parks, and other facilities. Similarly, better understanding is needed of how lightning currents travel along the ground and through water.

Recent studies of lightning victims showed several highly-vulnerable situations and activities. Among the most universal through time and space is taking shelter under trees (Holle et al., 1993; Lopez et al., 1995; Paxton and Morales, 1997). These reviews of Storm Data in Florida and Colorado also showed the growing dominance of recreational and sports situations for lightning casualties in recent decades. These studies are somewhat difficult to make since verbal records must be searched and summarized, and meaningful categories developed. Efforts need to continue on this topic, by state and region of the country, and through time to determine changing scenarios of lightning victims.


The paper by Vavrek et al. (1993) describing the flash-to-bang method received a wide positive response. Together with posters (described below), it was clear that a widespread need for up-to-date information on lightning safety was being addressed. A companion paper on safety (Holle et al., 1995) was adapted for use in sports situations (Bennett et al., 1997) and fighting forest fires (Graham et al., 1997).

Posters on the threat from taking shelter under trees were developed by Howard and Holle (1994, 1995). To date, 16,000 copies of the poster have been printed with the title ÒLightning Danger!Ó and subtitle ÒStay Away from Trees During Thunderstorms!Ó The English version has been printed three times for a total of 13,000 copies since 1994. The Spanish version has had 3,000 copies printed since 1995. This version was intended to fill a void in Spanish-language literature on lightning safety. The posters have been distributed to teachers, National Weather Service staff, and others. Copies of Vavrek et al. (1993), Holle et al. (1995), Graham et al. (1997), Bennett et al. (1997), and Lopez and Holle (1995) are made available with the posters.


The authors work with colleagues who should be co-authors of this report. This network of people in diverse locations and disciplines interacts on scientific and programmatic issues. They also participate in studies, publications, and outreach on understanding the lightning threat. While this list is certainly incomplete, it is essential to list the following collaborators. Apologies are due for the certain oversights that are sure to exist of people and organizations who have participated extensively in the efforts.


Photos by Johnny Autery of Dixons Mills, Alabama, and Ken Langford of Golden, Colorado were provided at no cost for the posters. The Spanish version was ably translated by Mrs. Evangelina V. Lopez, of Norman, Oklahoma.


Dr. Michael Cherington started the Center in 1992 at St. AnthonyÕs Hospital. The many participants in this multidisciplinary Center, and the support of the hospital, have also been essential to its continuity.


Rich Kithil and colleagues in Louisville, Colorado are involved in the Lightning Data Center in Denver, and disseminate information to people interested in lightning safety. Some of the collaborators on this list are also on the Board of Advisors for the Institute.


Dr. Mary Ann Cooper (Cooper, 1995: Cooper and Andrews, 1995) of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dr. Chris Andrews at the University of Queensland in Australia (Andrews et al., 1992; Andrews, 1995) participate in many of the educational efforts. Dr. Cooper is the most experienced U.S. physician with lightning victims. Dr. Andrews is chairman of an international working group on the effects of lightning on people.


Brian Bennett of William and Mary College (Bennett et al., 1997), and Dr. Katie Walsh of East Carolina University (Walsh, 1997) are actively spreading information to athletic and recreation groups about the dangers of lightning during organized sports.


NWS staff have participated in developing the contents of many guides and studies. Collaborative efforts include the following employees:

*Todd Heitkamp in Denver, now at Sioux Falls (Lopez et al., 1993, 1995).

*Charles Paxton and Dennis Decker in Florida, (Holle et al., 1993; Paxton and Morales, 1997).

*Dr. Daniel Smith in Fort Worth (Holle et al., 1993).

*Jim Allsopp in Chicago (Vavrek et al., 1993; Holle et al., 1995).

*Brenda Graham in Medford, Oregon (Graham et al., 1997).

*Brian Curran in Fort Worth (Curran et al., 1997).


The authors and collaborators have presented talks to many groups of all types. The response is one of great interest, and presentations end with a large number of questions. The recent scientific results (Section 3) are among the most frequent questions that people want answered - safe shelter, personal and property protection, safety plans, and lightning detection and frequency. A preference is to give this talk to educators so that as many people as possible can be reached. Adequate copies of the posters need to be available for the audience to take with them, and additional mailings are sent after the talk. Interviews with the media, including television, newspapers, radio, and magazines, also take place often during spring and summer. At this time, there does not seem to be an obvious end point to this process of reaching everyone with an interest and a need to know the facts of lightning safety!

Lightning will also be highlighted in the new museum exhibit ÒPowers of NatureÓ that opens at PhiladephiaÕs Franklin Institute in February 1998. This is especially appropriate because of the influence of Benjamin Franklin on the study of lightning. Several experiments and displays will emphasize the impacts of lightning on people and material objects. The exhibit will reach over 4.5 million people during the next four years as it tours major museums in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ft. Worth, St. Paul, Columbus, and Boston.


There has been a growing number of lightning casualties during recreation and leisure during recent decades (Lopez et al., 1995; Curran et al., 1997). Over the last few years, several events during organized sports have involved dozens of injuries and some fatalities. An active effort to reduce these casualties has been initiated from within the sports community. A masterÕs thesis was written, and a model policy was published as a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) guideline in their annual issue on sports medicine (Bennett et al., 1997; Bennett, 1997). Additional collaborators in this topic area are submitting policies to regional athletic associations for colleges and secondary schools. Journal articles on the current lack of guidelines (Walsh, 1997) are in preparation to cover spectator sports, practices, and informal team sports. The potential audience for this activity is very large when local and municipal soccer, baseball, softball, and other sports leagues for gradeschool children and adults are included.


Efforts to obtain databases concerning the damages from lightning have not been productive. The only uniform and comprehensive dataset is from the insurance industry for Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming (Holle et al., 1996). A similar effort to the casualty studies described in this paper would yield beneficial results that can assist in better understanding of the impacts of lightning.

It is hoped that the combined efforts of people and organizations described in this paper will have an impact on reducing the rate of lightning casualties. Further, it is hoped that fewer people will be lightning casualties during sports and recreation, and that fewer people take shelter under trees. These steps could result in a decrease in the number of people who are victims of lightning every year.


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