With nearly half of 2017 in the books, there has only been one lightning fatality reported in the United States. While that number is positive, it is also well below average for this time of year.
Lightning is one of the top weather dangers in the U.S., but as the calendar shifts to June, July and August, that’s when a peak in lightning deaths occurs and the numbers can change very quickly, according to National Weather Service (NWS) lightning safety expert John Jensenius.
“[The low number] is unusual. Typically by the 19th of June, we’re typically seeing on the order of eight fatalities in the U.S., ” Jensenius said. “We have a lot of lightning season left, so usually we see the fatalities starting to pick up in the latter half of June and the start of July is the peak in lightning fatalities across the U.S.”
“We are encouraged by the fact that we have only seen that one fatality,” Jensenius said, adding that one death is still one too many.
Based on a 10-year average from 2007 to 2016 compiled by the NWS, July averages 10 lightning fatalities, followed by June with seven and August with five.
The one fatality so far this year occurred on May 7 in Douglas County, Colorado, when a 37-year-old woman was struck and killed while riding a horse. A teenage girl was also injured.
Since May 17, there have been two reports of people sustaining serious injuries due to lightning in Indiana and Florida.
The cause of the low number of lightning deaths this year is unclear, but over the last 15 years, there has been a general trend downward in the number of fatalities, according to Jensenius.
This made 2016 a bit unusual because the number of deaths spiked to 38, the highest total since 45 in 2007.
Many times when a person is killed by lightning, it’s a situation of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which can simply mean being outdoors when a thunderstorm is in the area, Jensenius explained.
“It comes down to people taking chances, and when people take chances, it comes down to a little bit of luck,” Jensenius said.
Educational outreach initiatives such as Lightning Safety Awareness Week, which lasts until June 24, have played a significant role in keeping the public aware of the dangers that lightning can present.
Lightning safety and education have come a long way since record keeping began in the 1940s. In 1943 alone, lightning killed 432 people. Since the advent of Lightning Safety Awareness Week in 2001, the average number of American deaths per year has dropped from 50 to 30.
In addition to education outreach, smartphones and weather radios have allowed people to better monitor the weather and assess the risk of dangers when outdoors.
“Even with those electronic devices, if you do hear thunder, that is an immediate warning that you need to get inside,” Jensenius said.
Experts recommend several basic safety precautions including following the saying “when thunder roars, go indoors,” planning ahead to find a safe space and avoid finding shelter under a tree or near a body of water.
They also suggest waiting 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before returning outside because charges can linger in the atmosphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, studies have shown most people are struck before and after a thunderstorm’s peak.