Lightning strike

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A lightning strike or lightning bolt is an electric discharge between the atmosphere and the ground. They mostly originate in a cumulonimbus cloud and terminate on the ground, called cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning. A less common type of strike, called ground-to-cloud (GC) lightning, is upward propagating lightning initiated from a tall grounded object and reaching into the clouds. About 25% of all lightning events worldwide are strikes between the atmosphere and earth-bound objects. Most are intra-cloud (IC) lightning and cloud-to-cloud (CC), where discharges only occur high in the atmosphere. [1] [2] Lightning strikes the average commercial aircraft at least once a year, but modern engineering and design means this is rarely a problem. The movement of aircraft through clouds can even cause lightning strikes. [3]


A single lightning event is a "flash", which is a complex, multi-stage process, some parts of which are not fully understood. Most CG flashes only "strike" one physical location, referred to as a "termination". The primary conducting channel, the bright coursing light that may be seen and is called a "strike", is only about one inch in diameter, but because of its extreme brilliance, it often looks much larger to the human eye and in photographs. Lightning discharges are typically miles long, but certain types of horizontal discharges can be upwards of tens of miles in length. The entire flash lasts only a fraction of a second.

Panorama photography taken during a lightning storm over Bucharest, Romania -D3- LighningStormPanorama.jpg
Panorama photography taken during a lightning storm over Bucharest, Romania


Lightning strikes can injure humans in several different ways: [4] [5]

  1. Direct
    • Direct strike – the person is part of a flash channel. Enormous quantities of energy pass through the body very quickly, resulting in internal burns, organ damage, explosions of flesh and bone, and nervous system damage. Depending on the flash strength and access to medical services, it may be instantaneously fatal or cause permanent injury and impairment.
    • Contact injury – an object (generally a conductor) that a person is touching is electrified by a strike.
    • Side splash – branches of currents "jumping" from the primary flash channel, electrify the person.
    • Blast injuries – being thrown and suffering blunt force trauma from the shock wave (if very close) and possible hearing damage from the thunder. [6]
  2. Indirect
    • Ground current or "step potential" – Earth surface charges race towards the flash channel during discharge. Because the ground has high impedance, the current "chooses" a better conductor, often a person's legs, passing through the body. The near-instantaneous rate of discharge causes a potential (difference) over distance, which may amount to several thousand volts per linear foot. This phenomenon is responsible for more injuries and deaths than the above three combined, with reports such as "hundreds of reindeer killed by a lightning storm..." being a classic example. [7]
    • EMPs – the discharge process produces an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which may damage an artificial pacemaker, or otherwise affect normal biological processes.
    • Hallucinations may be induced in people located within 200 meters of a severe lightning storm. [8]
  3. Secondary or resultant
    • Explosions
    • Fires
    • Accidents


Lightning strikes can produce severe injuries [4] , and have a mortality rate of between 10% and 30%, with up to 80% of survivors sustaining long-term injuries. These severe injuries are not usually caused by thermal burns since the current is too brief to greatly heat up tissues; instead, nerves and muscles may be directly damaged by the high voltage producing holes in their cell membranes, a process called electroporation. [5]

In a direct strike, the electrical currents in the flash channel passes directly through the victim. The relatively high voltage drop around poorer electrical conductors (such as a human being), causes the surrounding air to ionize and break down, and the external flashover diverts most of the main discharge current so that it passes "around" the body, reducing injury.

Metallic objects in contact with the skin may "concentrate" the lightning's energy, given it is a better natural conductor and the preferred pathway, resulting in more serious injuries, such as burns from molten or evaporating metal. At least two cases have been reported where a strike victim wearing an iPod suffered more serious injuries as a result. [9]

However, during a flash, the current flowing through the channel and around the body will generate large electromagnetic fields and EMPs, which may induce electrical transients (surges) within the nervous system or pacemaker of the heart, upsetting normal operations. This effect might explain cases where cardiac arrest or seizures followed a lightning strike that produced no external injuries. It may also point to the victim not being directly struck at all, but just being very close to the strike termination. [5]

Another effect of lightning on bystanders is to their hearing. The resulting shock wave of thunder can damage the ears. Also, electrical interference to telephones or headphones may result in damaging acoustic noise.


A dot density map portraying male and female deaths by a lightning strike in the continental United States between 2007 and 2017. US Lightning Deaths.png
A dot density map portraying male and female deaths by a lightning strike in the continental United States between 2007 and 2017.
Memorial to a man killed by lightning in London, 1787 20150506-LondonGardenMuseum-8.jpg
Memorial to a man killed by lightning in London, 1787

About 240,000 incidents regarding lightning strikes happen each year. [10]

Annual fatality tolls vary greatly. One estimate is that the annual global death toll is 6,000. [11]

On the other hand, according to National Geographic, annually about 2,000 people are killed worldwide by lightning. [12] Therefore, the average human being, according to these figures has roughly a 1 in 60,000 to 80,000 chance of falling victim to lightning in an average lifetime (of about 65-70 years).

According to the NOAA, over the last 20 years, the United States averaged 51 annual lightning strike fatalities, placing it in the second position, just behind floods for deadly weather. [13] [14] In the US, between 9% and 10% of those struck die, [15] with an annual average of 25 deaths in the 2010s decade (16 in 2017). [16] [17]

In Kisii in western Kenya, some 30 people die each year from lightning strikes. Kisii's high rate of lightning fatalities occurs because of the frequency of thunderstorms and because many of the area's structures have metal roofs. [18]

These statistics do not reflect the difference between direct strikes, where the victim was part of the lightning pathway, indirect effects of being close to the termination point, like ground currents, and resultant, where the casualty arose from subsequent events, such as fires or explosions. Even the most knowledgeable first responders may not recognize a lightning-related injury, let alone particulars, which a medical examiner, police investigator or on the rare occasion a trained lightning expert may have difficulty identifying to record accurately. This ignores the reality that lightning, as the first event, may assume responsibility for the overall and resulting accident.[ citation needed ]

Direct strike casualties could be much higher than reported numbers. [19]

Effect on nature

Impact on vegetation

A green tree which was struck by lightning, exploding the trunk. Lightning damage.jpg
A green tree which was struck by lightning, exploding the trunk.
A eucalyptus tree that was struck by lightning, while two nearby pine trees were untouched, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Lightning struck tree 2.jpg
A eucalyptus tree that was struck by lightning, while two nearby pine trees were untouched, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.
A lightning-struck tree in the Toronto Islands, clearly showing the path that the charge took into the ground. LightningStruckTreeTorontoIslands1991.jpg
A lightning-struck tree in the Toronto Islands, clearly showing the path that the charge took into the ground.

Trees are frequent conductors of lightning to the ground. [20] Since sap is a relatively poor conductor, its electrical resistance causes it to be heated explosively into steam, which blows off the bark outside the lightning's path. In following seasons trees overgrow the damaged area and may cover it completely, leaving only a vertical scar. If the damage is severe, the tree may not be able to recover, and decay sets in, eventually killing the tree.

In sparsely populated areas such as the Russian Far East and Siberia, lightning strikes are one of the major causes of forest fires. [21] The smoke and mist expelled by a very large forest fire can cause electric charges, starting additional fires many kilometers downwind. [21]

Shattering of rocks

When water in fractured rock is rapidly heated by a lightning strike, the resulting steam explosion can cause rock disintegration and shift boulders. It may be a significant factor in erosion of tropical and subtropical mountains that have never been glaciated. Evidence of lightning strikes includes erratic magnetic fields. [22] [23]

Electrical and structural damage

A sculpture damaged by lightning in Wellington, New Zealand Zephyrometer Lightning Damage.JPG
A sculpture damaged by lightning in Wellington, New Zealand
The Eiffel Tower as a colossal lightning conductor. Photograph taken 1902-06-03 21:02 Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower - NOAA.jpg
The Eiffel Tower as a colossal lightning conductor. Photograph taken 1902-06-03 21:02

Telephones, modems, computers and other electronic devices can be damaged by lightning, as harmful overcurrent can reach them through the phone jack, Ethernet cable, or electricity outlet. [24] Close strikes can also generate electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) – especially during "positive" lightning discharges.

Lightning currents have a very fast rise time, on the order of 40 kA per microsecond. Hence, conductors of such currents exhibit marked skin effect, causing most of the currents to flow through the outer surface of the conductor. [25]

In addition to electrical wiring damage, the other types of possible damage to consider include structural, fire, and property damage.

Prevention and mitigations

The field of lightning protection systems is an enormous industry worldwide due to the impacts lightning can have on the constructs and activities of humankind. Lightning, as varied in properties measured across orders of magnitude as it is, can cause direct effects or have secondary impacts; lead to the complete destruction of a facility or process or simply cause the failure of a remote electronic sensor; it can result in outdoor activities being halted for safety concerns to employees as a thunderstorm nears an area and until it has sufficiently passed; it can ignite volatile commodities stored in large quantities or interfere with the normal operation of a piece of equipment at critical periods of time.

Most lightning protection devices and systems protect physical structures on the earth, aircraft in flight being the notable exception. While some attention has been paid to attempting to control lightning in the atmosphere, all attempts proved extremely limited in success. Chaff and silver iodide crystal concepts were devised to deal directly with the cloud cells and were dispensed directly into the clouds from an overflying aircraft. The chaff was devised to deal with the electrical manifestations of the storm from within, while the silver iodide salting technique was devised to deal with the mechanical forces of the storm.

Lightning protection systems

An example of a standard, pointed-tip, air terminal. Pointed Lightning Rod.jpg
An example of a standard, pointed-tip, air terminal.

Hundreds of devices, including lightning rods and charge transfer systems, are used to mitigate lightning damage and influence the path of a lightning flash.

A lightning rod (or lightning protector) is a metal strip or rod connected to earth through conductors and a grounding system, used to provide a preferred pathway to ground if lightning terminates on a structure. The class of these products are often called a "finial" or "air terminal". A lightning rod or "Franklin rod" in honor of its famous inventor, Benjamin Franklin, is simply a metal rod, and without being connected to the lightning protection system, as was sometimes the case in the old days, will provide no added protection to a structure. Other names include "lightning conductor", "arrester", and "discharger"; however, over the years these names have been incorporated into other products or industries with a stake in lightning protection. Lightning arrester, for example, often refers to fused links that explode when a strike occurs to a high voltage overhead power line to protect the more expensive transformers down the line by opening the circuit. In reality, it was an early form of a heavy duty surge protection device (SPD). Modern arresters, constructed with metal oxides, are capable of safely shunting abnormally high voltage surges to ground while preventing normal system voltages from being shorted to ground.

In 1962, the USAF placed protective lightning strike-diversion tower arrays at all of the Italian and Turkish Jupiter MRBM nuclear armed missiles sites after two strikes partially arming the missiles.[ citation needed ]

Monitoring and warning systems

iStrike Lightning Siren System w/ Strobe currently in use in Noblesville, IN IStrike Lightning Siren in Noblesville, IN.jpg
iStrike Lightning Siren System w/ Strobe currently in use in Noblesville, IN
A Thor Guard lightning prediction system Lightning warning system 1.jpg
A Thor Guard lightning prediction system

The exact location of a lightning strike or when it will occur is still impossible to predict. However, products and systems have been designed of varying complexities to alert people as the probability of a strike increases above a set level determined by a risk assessment for the location's conditions and circumstances. One significant improvement has been in the area of detection of flashes through both ground and satellite-based observation devices. The strikes and atmospheric flashes are not predicted, however the level of detail recorded by these technologies has vastly improved in the past 20 years.

Although commonly associated with thunderstorms at close range, lightning strikes can occur on a day that seems devoid of clouds. This occurrence is known as "A Bolt From the Blue"; [26] lightning can strike up to 10 miles from a cloud.

Lightning interferes with AM (amplitude modulation) radio signals much more than FM (frequency modulation) signals, providing an easy way to gauge local lightning strike intensity. [27] To do so, one should tune a standard AM medium wave receiver to a frequency with no transmitting stations, and listen for crackles amongst the static. Stronger or nearby lightning strikes will also cause cracking if the receiver is tuned to a station. As lower frequencies propagate further along the ground than higher ones, the lower medium wave (MW) band frequencies (in the 500–600 kHz range) can detect lightning strikes at longer distances; if the longwave band (153–279 kHz) is available, using it can increase this range even further.

Lightning detection systems have been developed and may be deployed in locations where lightning strikes present special risks, such as public parks. Such systems are designed to detect the conditions which are believed to favor lightning strikes and provide a warning to those in the vicinity to allow them to take appropriate cover.

Personal safety

The U.S. National Lightning Safety Institute [28] advises American citizens to have a plan for their safety when a thunderstorm occurs and to commence it as soon as the first lightning is seen or thunder heard. This is important as lightning can strike without rain actually falling. If thunder can be heard at all, then there is a risk of lightning. The safest place is inside a building or a vehicle. [29] Risk remains for up to 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder.

The National Lightning Safety Institute recommends using the F-B (flash to boom) method to gauge distance to a lightning strike. The flash of a lightning strike and resulting thunder occur at roughly the same time. But light travels 300,000 kilometers in a second, almost a million times the speed of sound. Sound travels at the slower speed of about 340 m/s (depending on the temperature), so the flash of lightning is seen before thunder is heard. A method to determine the distance between lightning strike and viewer, involves counting the seconds between the lightning flash and thunder. Then, dividing by three to determine the distance in kilometers, or by five for miles. Immediate precautions against lightning should be taken if the F-B time is 25 seconds or less, that is, if the lightning is closer than 8 km or 5 miles.

A report suggested that it did not matter whether a person was standing up, squatting, or lying down when outside during a thunderstorm, because lightning can travel along the ground; this report suggested it was safest to be inside a solid structure or vehicle. [30] In the United States, the average annual death toll from lightning is around 51 deaths per year, although more recently, in the period 2009 to 2018, the U.S. has averaged only 27 lightning fatalities per year. [31] The riskiest activities include fishing, boating, camping, and golf. [30] A person injured by lightning does not carry an electrical charge, and can be safely handled to apply first aid before emergency services arrive. Lightning can affect the brainstem, which controls breathing. [32]

Several studies conducted in South Asia and Africa suggest that the dangers of lightning are not taken sufficiently seriously there. A research team from the University of Colombo found that even in neighborhoods which had experienced deaths from lightning, no precautions were taken against future storms. An expert forum convened in 2007 to address how to raise awareness of lightning and improve lightning protection standards, and expressed concern that many countries had no official standards for the installation of lightning rods. [33]

Notable incidents

All events associated or suspected of causing damage are called "lightning incidents" due to four important factors.

As such it is often inconclusive, albeit highly probably a lightning flash was involved, hence categorizing it as a "lightning incident" covers all bases.



Airplanes are commonly struck by lightning without damage, with the typical commercial aircraft hit at least once a year. [3] However, sometimes the effects of a strike are serious.

Most-stricken human

See also

Related Research Articles

Electromagnetic compatibility

Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is the ability of electrical equipment and systems to function acceptably in their electromagnetic environment, by limiting the unintentional generation, propagation and reception of electromagnetic energy which may cause unwanted effects such as electromagnetic interference (EMI) or even physical damage in operational equipment. The goal of EMC is the correct operation of different equipment in a common electromagnetic environment. It is also the name given to the associated branch of electrical engineering.

Lightning Weather phenomenon involving electrostatic discharge

Lightning is a naturally occurring electrostatic discharge during which two electrically charged regions in the atmosphere or ground temporarily equalize themselves, causing the instantaneous release of as much as one gigajoule of energy. This discharge may produce a wide range of electromagnetic radiation, from very hot plasma created by the rapid movement of electrons to brilliant flashes of visible light in the form of black-body radiation. Lightning causes thunder, a sound from the shock wave which develops as gases in the vicinity of the discharge experience a sudden increase in pressure. Lightning occurs commonly during thunderstorms and other types of energetic weather systems, but volcanic lightning can also occur during volcanic eruptions.

Electrostatic discharge

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is the sudden flow of electricity between two electrically charged objects caused by contact, an electrical short, or dielectric breakdown. A buildup of static electricity can be caused by tribocharging or by electrostatic induction. The ESD occurs when differently-charged objects are brought close together or when the dielectric between them breaks down, often creating a visible spark.


Thunder is the sound caused by lightning. Depending on the distance from and nature of the lightning, it can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble (brontide). The sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air within and surrounding the path of a lightning strike. In turn, this expansion of air creates a sonic shock wave, often referred to as a "thunderclap" or "peal of thunder". The study of thunder is known as brontology.

Ball lightning Atmospheric electrical phenomenon

Ball lightning is an unexplained phenomenon described as luminescent, spherical objects that vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. Though usually associated with thunderstorms, the phenomenon is said to last considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. Some nineteenth century reports describe balls that eventually explode and leave behind an odor of sulfur. Descriptions of ball lightning appear in a variety of accounts over the centuries, and have received much attention from scientists. An optical spectrum of what appears to have been a ball-lightning event was published in January 2014, and included a video at high frame-rate. Laboratory experiments have produced effects that are visually similar to reports of ball lightning, but how these relate to the supposed phenomenon remains unclear.

Static electricity

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material. The charge remains until it is able to move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge. Static electricity is named in contrast with current electricity, which flows through wires or other conductors and transmits energy.

Effects of nuclear explosions Type and severity of damage caused by nuclear weapons

The effects of a nuclear explosion on its immediate vicinity are typically much more destructive and multifaceted than those caused by conventional explosives. In most cases, the energy released from a nuclear weapon detonated within the lower atmosphere can be approximately divided into four basic categories:

Lightning arrester

A lightning arrester is a device used on electric power systems and telecommunication systems to protect the insulation and conductors of the system from the damaging effects of lightning. The typical lightning arrester has a high-voltage terminal and a ground terminal. When a lightning surge travels along the power line to the arrester, the current from the surge is diverted through the arrester, in most cases to earth.

High voltage

High voltage electricity refers to electric potential large enough to cause injury or damage. In certain industries, high voltage refers to voltage above a certain threshold. Equipment and conductors that carry high voltage warrant special safety requirements and procedures.

Atmospheric electricity Electricity in planetary atmospheres

Atmospheric electricity is the study of electrical charges in the Earth's atmosphere. The movement of charge between the Earth's surface, the atmosphere, and the ionosphere is known as the global atmospheric electrical circuit. Atmospheric electricity is an interdisciplinary topic with a long history, involving concepts from electrostatics, atmospheric physics, meteorology and Earth science.

A flash fire is a sudden, intense fire caused by ignition of a mixture of air and a dispersed flammable substance such as a solid, flammable or combustible liquid, or a flammable gas. It is characterized by high temperature, short duration, and a rapidly moving flame front.

Electric spark

An electric spark is an abrupt electrical discharge that occurs when a sufficiently high electric field creates an ionized, electrically conductive channel through a normally-insulating medium, often air or other gases or gas mixtures. Michael Faraday described this phenomenon as "the beautiful flash of light attending the discharge of common electricity".

Arc flash Heat and light produced during an electrical arc fault

An arc flash is the light and heat produced as part of an arc fault, a type of electrical explosion or discharge that results from a connection through air to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system.

Lightning detection

A lightning detector is a device that detects lightning produced by thunderstorms. There are three primary types of detectors: ground-based systems using multiple antennas, mobile systems using a direction and a sense antenna in the same location, and space-based systems.

Surge arrester device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients

A surge arrester is a device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients caused by external (lightning) or internal (switching) events. Also called a surge protection device (SPD) or transient voltage surge suppressor (TVSS), this class of device is used to protect equipment in power transmission and distribution systems. The energy criterion for various insulation material can be compared by impulse ratio. A surge arrester should have a low impulse ratio, so that a surge incident on the surge arrester may be bypassed to the ground instead of passing through the apparatus.

Lightning rod

A lightning rod or lightning conductor (UK) is a metal rod mounted on a structure and intended to protect the structure from a lightning strike. If lightning hits the structure, it will preferentially strike the rod and be conducted to ground through a wire, instead of passing through the structure, where it could start a fire or cause electrocution. Lightning rods are also called finials, air terminals, or strike termination devices.

Electrical burn

An electrical burn is a burn that results from electricity passing through the body causing rapid injury. Approximately 1,000 deaths per year due to electrical injuries are reported in the United States, with a mortality rate of 3-5%. Electrical burns differ from thermal or chemical burns in that they cause much more subdermal damage. They can exclusively cause surface damage, but more often tissues deeper underneath the skin have been severely damaged. As a result, electrical burns are difficult to accurately diagnose, and many people underestimate the severity of their burn. In extreme cases, electricity can cause shock to the brain, strain to the heart, and injury to other organs.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP), also sometimes called a transient electromagnetic disturbance, is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. Such a pulse's origin may be a natural occurrence or man-made and can occur as a radiated, electric, or magnetic field or a conducted electric current, depending on the source.

Lightning injury Injury caused by lightning strike

Lightning injuries are injuries caused by a lightning strike. Initial symptoms may include heart asystole and respiratory arrest. While the asystole may resolve spontaneously fairly rapidly, the respiratory arrest is typically more prolonged. Other symptoms may include burns and blunt injuries. Of those who survive about 75% have ongoing health problems as a result, such as cataracts and hearing loss. If death occurs it is typically from either an abnormal heart rhythm or respiratory failure.


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