NOAA's National Weather Service has discovered that 64 percent of lightning deaths since 2006 occurred while people were participating in leisure activities, with fishing topping the list at 26 deaths. Boating was third ahead of golf.
John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service, conducted the study by examining demographic information for 238 deaths attributed to lightning over the last seven years. NOAA released these findings on the first day of National Lightning Safety Awareness Week to call attention to the danger of outdoor activities during a thunderstorm.
Of the 152 deaths associated with leisure activities, fishing is followed by camping (15 deaths), boating (14 deaths), soccer (12 deaths) and golf (8 deaths). The remaining 77 people were struck by lightning while participating in a number of other leisure activities like enjoying the beach, swimming, walking and running, riding recreational vehicles, and picnicking or relaxing in their yard. Between 2006 and 2012, 82 percent of people killed by lightning were male.
“When people think of lightning deaths, they usually think of golf,” Jensenius said. “While every outdoor activity is dangerous when a thunderstorm is in the area, outdoor activities other than golf lead to more lightning deaths. NOAA has made a concerted effort to raise lightning awareness in the golf community since we began the campaign in 2001, and we believe our outreach has made a huge difference since lightning-related deaths on golf courses have decreased by 75 percent.”
Fatalities tend to happen more often in the coastal Southeast and Gulf Coast states as well as several states along the Great Lakes, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois.
According to NASA, Florida has twice as many lightning casualties (deaths and injuries combined) as any other state. Most lightning casualties occur in the afternoon—two-thirds between noon and 4 p.m. with casualties maximum at 4. Sunday has 24 percent more deaths than other days, followed by Wednesday. Lightning reports reach their peak in July.
According to Boat US claim statistics from 2000 to 2003, 0.54 percent of cruising size sailboats got struck per year. In Florida, the rate was about double that. For catamarans the US-wide figure was 1.2 percent per year, so in Florida the rate was probably 2.4% per year for catamarans. (41 percent of all Boat US claims originated in Florida.)
Jensenius said the large number of fishing, camping and boating lightning deaths may occur because these activities require extra time to get to a safe place. “People often wait far too long to head to safety when a storm is approaching, and that puts them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation,” he said.
Prior to the lightning safety campaign, lightning killed an average of 73 people each year in the United States. Since the National Weather Service launched the campaign, the average has dropped to 37. Seven people have died from lightning strikes so far this year.
The best way for people to protect themselves against lightning injury or death is to monitor the weather and postpone or cancel outdoor activities when thunderstorms are in the forecast. Lightning can strike from 10 miles away, so if people can hear thunder, they are in danger of being struck by lightning. The only safe places to be during a thunderstorm are in a building with four walls and a roof or in a car. A hut, cabana, tent, or other rain shelter will not protect a person from being struck by lightning.