Lightning Strike Risk & Safety | Facts | Tips | Dangers

Lightning fatalities are highest among those who are fishing, boating, camping, and on the beach. That’s even higher than lightning fatality statistics of golfers (source: NWS statistics).

Many lightning victims were seeking shelter when they were struck because they waited too long before seeking safety.

Many believe that they are safe from a lightning strike because the thunderstorm is not yet overhead.

The thing is, when you hear thunder, even a distant rumble, you are already within striking distance of a potentially deadly lightning bolt – even a bolt from the blue.

Under good listening conditions, you can hear thunder from a distance of about 10 miles. That’s the approximate distance that lightning can strike outward from a thunderstorm!

Unfortunately most people don’t seek shelter until the first lightning strike is closely upon them. They don’t realize they could be struck even though the thunderstorm is thought to be far enough away.

Threat of Death by Lightning Strike

Risk of death by lightning is HIGHEST when thunderstorms are NOT YET OVERHEAD.

It begins at a distance of about 10 miles away and peaks just prior to (and during) the thunderstorm initial approach.

The second peak of death-by-lightning is when the thunderstorm is departing.

Image: National Weather Service

How do Thunderstorms make Lightning?

Well actually, the lightning is seen before the thunder is heard. But here’s a quick explanation:

Causation can be more complicated than this, but, they typically develop from rising warm air heated by the sun, growing in height to become towering cumulus clouds.

The bottom, or base of a thunderstorm cloud will develop an electrical charge (typically a negative charge) from ice particle interaction within the updraft and storm itself. 

Similarly the top of the cloud will develop a positive charge. We now have an electrical field. When strong enough to break down the air-resistance, a lightning bolt will ‘short circuit’.

This can happen between the cloud and ground too. When strong enough, the charge between the two may ‘short circuit’ and go BOOM:

A ‘leader’ or ‘leaders’ form, and may branch out as it approaches the ground in search of a discharge point.

A conductive ‘streamer’ will then shoot up from an object attached to the ground, usually a high point within the area. It will reach up and meet with the leader to create an often dramatic and powerful return stroke of bright lightning.

Negative charge Lightning Bolt (-)

95% of lightning bolts are ‘negative’. 75% inside the cloud (intra-cloud). 20% cloud-to-ground (CG).

The average ‘negative’ bolt may discharge ~30,000 amps of electrical current and may carry millions of volts, depending on factors.

A Lightning bolt instantly heats the air around it to about 30-50,000 degrees-Fahrenheit. It expands (explodes) the air around it to create a supersonic shock wave, which is what we hear as thunder.

Positive charge Lightning Bolt (+)

The extremely powerful but less common ‘positive’ bolt of lightning (about 5% of all strikes) will discharge about 5 – 10 times the energy of a ‘negative’ bolt (and last about 10 times longer)!

It typically comes from the top of a very large anvil shaped thunderhead and reaches out for miles (outside the cloud!) ‘into the blue’ before it finds a pathway to ground.

source: The National Severe Storms Laboratory
source: Lightning (Wikipedia)

Lightning Safety Tips

NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area.

If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.

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.

Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks

Never lie flat on the ground

Never shelter under an isolated tree

Do not 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 (wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.)

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.

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Personal Lightning Safety Tips

The following safety tips are sourced from the National Lightning Safety Institute:

1. PLAN in advance your evacuation and safety measures. When you first see lightning or hear thunder, activate your emergency plan. Now is the time to go to a building or a vehicle. Lightning often precedes rain, so don’t wait for the rain to begin before suspending activities.

2. IF OUTDOORS…Avoid water. Avoid the high ground. Open spaces. Avoid all metal objects including electric wires, fences, machinery, motors, power tools, etc. Unsafe places include underneath canopies, small picnic or rain shelters, or near trees. Where possible, find shelter in a substantial building or in a fully enclosed metal vehicle such as a car, truck or a van with the windows completely shut. If lightning is striking nearby when you are outside, you should:

A. Crouch down. Put feet together. Place hands over ears to minimize hearing damage from thunder.

B. Avoid proximity (minimum of 15 ft.) to other people.

3. IF INDOORS… Avoid water. Stay away from doors and windows. Do not use the telephone. Take off head sets. Turn off, unplug, and stay away from appliances, computers, power tools, & TV sets. Lightning may strike exterior electric and phone lines, inducing shocks to inside equipment.

4. SUSPEND ACTIVITIES for 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder.

5. INJURED PERSONS do not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. Apply First Aid procedures to a lightning victim if you are qualified to do so. Call 911 or send for help immediately.

Which State’s Have The Most Lightning?

Then Louisiana. See the map below:

Image: The Christian Science Monitor

Image: The Christian Science Monitor

 Lightning Facts

There is no safe place outdoors when a thunderstorm is nearby.

The vast majority of lightning victims were going to a safe place but waited too long before seeking safe shelter.

The channel of air through which lightning passes can be heated to 30-50,000 degrees-F, hotter than the surface of the sun!

The rapid heating and cooling of the air near the lightning channel causes a shock wave that results in the sound we know as “thunder”.

According to the NOAA, lightning causes an average of about 50 fatalities and 400 injuries each year in the United States.

Lightning occurs with all thunderstorms.

It causes more than $1 billion in insured losses each year.

Lightning Fiction

Rubber tires on a vehicle will protect you from lightning. Rather, it’s the steel frame of a hard topped vehicle that provides increased protection if you’re not touching the metal. While you may be injured by lightning if it strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.

“Heat lightning” occurs after very hot summer days and is no threat. Wrong. “Heat lightning” is a term used to describe lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for the thunder to be heard. It could still be dangerously close.

How to know How Far Away Lightning is

Count the number of seconds between a flash of lightning and the sound of the resulting thunder.

Divide this number by 5 to get an estimate of the distance in miles to the lightning strike. In other words, it’s about 5 seconds per mile.

Lightning Strike Density Map (United States)


Lightning Strike Density Map (World)


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  1. Lightning struck and killed a high school student during football practice at the school I played for some 20 years after I graduated.

    The thunderstorm was over 30 miles distant at the time, just dark clouds on the horizon. Texans are serious about their high school football. The school district built a indoor football practice center afterwards.

    In the early aftermath of the tragedy, there were calls for the coach to be fired and held responsible for poor judgement, but all witnesses present said that no one would have thought the distant storm presented any threat.

    Lessons learned………..the hard way.

  2. I joined the Army reserves after I got off of active duty. We had a large tent destroyed by fire after hit by lightning at summer camp.

    I had grabbed a large CO2 fire extinguisher and was running across an open field when I had an epiphany. Open field, large piece of metal, it’s a frigging tent! Dropped the extinguisher and ran in the opposite direction in a crouch.

  3. I know wayyyyy too much about Lightening.
    Helped do Lightning research up on Langmuir Labs on Magdalena Mountain.

    The 10 miles distance is not correct I don’t care what the “experts” say, we recorded strikes of up to 35 miles from the core.

    Second false is that someone that gets hit “directly” from a Lightning Strike can survive. Nope sorry Charlie, at an average of 24,000 volts and 30-50,000 amps delivered in a 1″ column of pure electrons, your toast, IF you get hit via a feeder or the building field, yes. But no way in ‘help’ if hit directly.

    If you get caught in a T-Storm do NOT get up and run, you will not outrun a strike, I know of 3 people that tried just that. Closed casket funerals are never a good thing.

    Lastly, if you live anywhere near a T-storm area, put up some Lightning Protection on your home and out buildings, it works, go ahead ask me how I know.

    1. NRP,

      That portion of childhood, when we lived on the farm, our two story farmhouse had “lightning rods”. This system consisted of 3/4″solid steel, twisted rod, insulated from the house, with a spire about 18″-20″ pointed skyward on each roof peak, complete with a “rooster wind vane” at the center peak of the roof.

      Lightning struck this house on a fairly regular basis. Evidently the rods did their job, as there was never any damage done. Other than the loud crack-boom of the lightning strike itself, those rods would vibrate violently for several seconds after the strike. I often wondered though, whether the lightning rods, which were connected to “ground rods” driven deep into the earth, didn’t actually attract the lightning which might have found another shorter route to the ground otherwise.

      1. Dennis;
        You have a very good point on the “Lightning Rods”, they actually do “Attract” the lightening and give it a path to ground.

        Hence the newer method is to use what are called “Dissipaters” they look more like a long wire paint brush upside down (pointing up) to dissipate the feeder strike into the air more than causing a concentrated spot for the return strike to hit as the Rods do.
        PS: Dissipaters do work well.

        1. Ken;
          Maybe on your side of the Rockies it’s spelled Lightning, but over here on the West it’s spelled Lightenedingeringish-ed HAHAHAH

  4. – I do not recall the exact statistics, but the most commonly injured person for lightning is a golfer. I have seen three lightning victims in my time in the E.R., two were golfers and one was a power company lineman whose power line was struck by lightning while he was working on it. All were single individuals injured in separate incidents.

    Believe me, it is not a pretty sight. (Only one golfer survived the incidents.)

    – Papa S.

    1. First paragraph:

      “Lightning fatalities are highest among those who are fishing, boating, camping, and on the beach. That’s even higher than lightning fatality statistics of golfers (source: NWS National-Weather-Service statistics).”

      1. AND the reasoning for that???

        Because when the Big Spark (easier to spell, hehehe) hits the water it travels outwards across the surface to basically fry anything in it’s area….

      2. – There is a difference in most fatalities vs. most common. Be that as it may, we all know that there are statistics, falsehoods, and d@*n lies.

        Besides, I have it on good authority that the Great I Am hates golfers, anyway. They also make better targets.

        – Papa

    1. Yes Tommyboy;
      It is calculated that if one could harness the energy from one average strike into “useable” electricity it would power New Your Shippy for 3 days, 100%.

  5. Learn CPR if you are in a high lightning-strike area. “Prompt aggressive CPR has been highly effective for the survival of victims of lightning strikes.”

    The 19 year old first-born son of one of my staff was killed by lightning years ago. He and his friends were playing soccer in a field on a cloudy day. No one knew CPR or that it might have saved him. We implemented an aggressive lightning safety program after that.

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