Being struck by lightning isn't as rare as you might think. Here's why it happens – and how to avoid it.

Photograph by Pete Abel / Alamy
Published 28 Jul 2021, 17:09 BST

“THERE was this almighty bang, like being in a bomb blast. We were both thrown into the air, before landing back down on the ledge. I had no idea what happened. I remember feeling this tingly, nerve-jangling sensation from top to toe.”

Dan Bailey and his friend were rock-climbing on a mountain called The Cobbler in the Scottish Highlands several years ago when, while resting on a mountain ledge, they were both struck by a bolt of lightning. The strangest thing was, there had been no warning at all: no storm, no thunder. Bailey, an experienced mountaineer, guidebook author and editor of an outdoor website, later described it as “a bolt from the blue”.

The two men quickly scrambled off the mountain top, down to lower ground. But there was a disquieting smell of barbecued meat and melted plastic. “We both realised we had melt holes in our Gore-Tex jackets, and through the other layers of clothing beneath,” Bailey explains.

On stripping to the waist, he noticed a target pattern seared into the skin of his back, below his shoulder blade. “There were concentric rings of different colours on my skin, with a tiny dimple in the middle where the current had gone in. And, on my right foot, there was a hole through my sock and out through my boot where the current had exited.”

Both climbers spent a night in hospital under observation, but escaped relatively unscathed. Neither suffered from any long-term health problems, although to this day, Bailey still has a scar on his back, the size of a 50-pence coin.

He was very fortunate: the potential for being knocked off the mountain into a fall aside, lightning strikes alone can often be fatal. It’s reckoned as many as 240,000 humans are struck every year planet-wide, with estimates of the resulting deaths varying enormously. One study has suggested 6,000 deaths a year, another as many as 24,000 deaths.

The Cobbler, in the Southern Highlands, where Dan Bailey and his companion were struck by lightning. Hillwalkers, golfers and agricultural workers – or anyone who finds themselves in exposed ground, such as those playing sports – are potentially at risk in stormy weather.  

Photograph by Richard Newton / Alamy

Cause – and effect

Since thunderstorms are mostly created when the Earth’s surface heats up intensely, they are most frequent across hot and humid landmasses, and in the tropics rather than at higher or lower latitudes. Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo is a particular hotspot, with an average of 28 flashes a minute during the rainy season. At the beginning of this year’s monsoon season in India, at least 76 people were killed by lightning – with the death toll more than 40 in Uttar Pradesh, more than 20 in Rajasthan, and around a dozen in Madhya Pradesh. 

Our northerly British Isles, on the other hand, are lucky to escape the worst thunderstorms. Even here, though, the southeast is the region most affected, especially during summer months – conceivably a situation that will worsen if temperature trends continue. 

According to a British research body called the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (or TORRO for short), during the past 30 years, 58 people across the UK have died from lightning strikes, averaging at about two deaths a year. As many as 30 people are injured annually

One of the most recent deaths was a nine-year-old boy called Jordan Banks, who was tragically struck while kicking a football on a playing field in Blackpool in May 2021. In 2009, while playing cricket in Birmingham, a group of teenagers sheltered from a thunderstorm beneath a tree which was struck by lightning. One suffered serious burns and cardiac arrest, and died in hospital a few days later.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents warns that outdoor sport and leisure, agricultural work and construction work are the riskiest activities when it comes to lightning. Hikers and golfers are particularly vulnerable since they often find themselves far from shelters when storms menace.

Dan Bailey knows this to his chagrin. But he was luckier than a hiker killed near Glencoe, in Scotland, in 2019; or the two hikers killed on the same day in 2015 in the Brecon Beacons; or the golfer killed on a course in Suffolk in 2017.

'Electrocuted through the soil'

“How lightning originates is not widely understood,” explains the UK’s Met Office. They say the leading theory is that electrical charge builds up, usually in cumulonimbus storm clouds, as hail and smaller ice particles collide. The hail becomes negatively charged and collects at the base of the cloud while the ice particles become positively charged and are propelled to the top of the cloud by updraughts.

Large structures like wind turbines are at risk from strikes. Here, a wind turbine in Doddington, Cambridgeshire, displays the damage of a lightning strike after it was hit in May 2018.

Photograph by Geoffrey Robinson / Alamy

Now for the dynamic bit: the negatively charged cloud base is attracted to positive charges at the top of the cloud, in other clouds, and in objects on the Earth’s surface such as buildings, trees, and occasionally people. When those negative and positive charges equalise, a discharge occurs in the form of a brilliant lightning flash. Thanks to the rapid heating of the air, there’s an accompanying clap of thunder.

Most lightning occurs cloud-to-ground, cloud-to-air, cloud-to-cloud or ground-to-cloud. There are also extremely rare categories and sub-categories such as ball lightning, blue jets, red sprites and elves.

According to the Met Office, cloud-to-ground lightning bolts are normally between two and three centimetres wide, with an average length of two to three miles. They strike at around 270,000mph, with temperatures reaching 30,000 degrees centigrade – five times hotter than the surface of the Sun. 

Professor Ryan Blumenthal is a forensic pathologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He has studied the grim scenarios in which humans tend to be killed or injured by lighting. It’s a science called keraunopathology. Some victims are struck directly by lightning, others while touching or standing near objects which are struck. Some are electrocuted through the soil. Occasionally people become so positively charged that lightning flashes upwards from their bodies to a storm cloud.

'Victimes de la foudre' (victims of the lightning), a drypoint etching by 19th century French artist Alphonse Legros, depicting farm workers stricken by a falling tree during a lightning storm.

Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

Blumenthal says the range of injuries is surprisingly diverse. There are immediate effects such as skin burns, singed hair, eye damage from the bright light, neurological damage, internal organ damage, hearing loss and cardiac arrest. One particularly bizarre phenomenon is a condition called Lichtenberg figures, when fern-like patterns appear on a victim’s skin. The jury is out on how exactly they form.

But there are long-term effects, too. Some victims report headaches, memory loss, lack of concentration, chronic pain and even personality changes.

In the United States there is a support group for lightning victims called Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International. Based in North Carolina, it was founded in 1989 by Steve Marshburn – a lightning victim himself – to help survivors, fund medical research and educate people in avoiding lightning. A survey conducted a few years ago discovered that nearly half of its members suffered from depression, while over ten per cent claimed to be suicidal.

“Some victims report headaches, memory loss, lack of concentration, chronic pain and even personality changes.”

The good news is that lightning injuries and fatalities are on the decrease, certainly across the developed world. Jonathan Webb is director of TORRO’s thunderstorm and severe weather division. He explains there are many reasons fewer Britons are now struck by lightning: modern weather forecasts are far more accurate; medical support is quicker and better; fewer of us work outdoors in agriculture; building regulations are tighter, including earthing systems and lightning rods; health and safety regulations for the workplace and for aircraft are more stringent; in general, we are more aware of and better educated in the risks of lightning.

Avoiding a bolt 

Still, it pays to remind ourselves how to avoid being struck. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents offers clear advice. “Ideally, seek shelter inside a large building or a motor vehicle, keeping away from, and getting out of wide, open spaces and exposed hilltops,” they say. “The inside of a car is a safe place to be in a storm; lightning will spread over the metal of the vehicle before earthing to the ground through the tyres.”

The society warns not to shelter beneath tall or isolated trees. “It has been estimated that one in four people struck by lightning are sheltering under trees,” they add. And for anyone swimming or boating out on the water, the advice is to “get to the shore and off wide, open beaches as quickly as possible as water will transmit strikes from further away”. For golfers, the “best protection is to leave your clubs and crouch down in a bunker”.

But what if you find yourself in the open countryside, exposed to lightning, with no recourse to shelter? “Make yourself as small a target as possible by crouching down with your feet together, hands on knees and your head tucked in,” the society advises. “This technique keeps as much of you off the ground as possible.

When it comes to lightning, that is perhaps the most life-saving tip of all: keep your head down and stay small.

Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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