Fourteen people have died from lightning strikes in the US so far this year. And because peak lightning season in the Northern Hemisphere takes place during June, July and August, the worst is likely behind us.
Even if a few more deaths are reported in the next three months, the overall toll will still be below what we usually see, says John Jensenius, a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council.
About 26 people on average die from lightning strikes and about 234 are injured each year, according to National Lightning Safety Council data from the last 10 years.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re going to be below average,” Jensenius told CNN. “Whether it’ll be a record year or not, it’s hard to know right now.”
There’s been less lightning activity this year
So, why are there fewer deaths from lightning strikes this year?
For one, there’s been less lightning activity – an analysis by the company Vaisala, which runs a national lightning detection network, suggests that lightning events in the continental US decreased by nearly 17% in 2020.
Lightning counts were mostly average from January through April, but slowed significantly in May, June and July, when lightning activity tends to ramp up, data from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) showed.
“Although there was some noteworthy lightning activity during those months, including the Washington Monument being struck by lightning, these months were relatively tame from a thunderstorm perspective,” meteorologist Chris Vagasky wrote in a blog post on Vaisala’s website.
“As an example of the decrease in lightning, June 2019 had only three days when the NLDN detected fewer than 1 million lightning events. June 2020 had 15 such days!”
That decrease in lightning activity has to do with a decrease in what’s called atmospheric instability, which is one of the conditions needed to form thunderstorms.
“As you think about what you need to create a thunderstorm, which then creates the lightning, you need moisture, instability and lift,” Vagasky told CNN. “Those are the three key ingredients.”
Vagasky said he and his colleagues found that the Great Plains and the Southeast, which usually see the most lightning strikes in a given year, had seen a “significant decrease” in atmospheric instability during peak lightning season. Additionally, those areas also saw regions of high pressure in the atmosphere that effectively suppressed the lift needed for thunderstorms to develop.
Still, 2020 hasn’t been without devastating lightning events.
In August, more than 10,000 lightning strikes over a 72-hour period sparked at least 367 new fires in California. This year has also seen a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season, which is on the verge of becoming the most active since 2005.
But though some regions have seen more storms or a significant number of lightning strikes, overall lightning activity across the country this year is below average. Also, much of the West has experienced severe drought, while New England and other parts of the country have been abnormally dry.
“At the beginning of the year 11% of the US was in drought. Now 42.6% of the country is in drought,” said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. “This is another indication that the US has not had near the normal rainfall, and inevitably lightning, this year.”
The pandemic may mean fewer deaths are being reported
It might be tempting to think that the decrease in lightning fatalities has to do with the coronavirus pandemic driving more people indoors.
After all, about 54% of lightning fatalities between 2006 and 2019 happened while people engaged in outdoor activities, such as fishing, being at the beach, camping and farming.
But Jensenius doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening here.
Though the pandemic has driven beaches across the country to close for a time, an increased demand for camping equipment and reports that more people are fishing suggest that people are actually spending more time outdoors than before.
Instead, Jensenius said he’s concerned that this extremely busy news year could mean that we’re just not hearing about all the lightning fatalities that are happening.
“Much of the news has been concentrated on the pandemic and the election,” he said. “Typically we find out about [lightning strike fatalities] by monitoring news alerts. So if the stories aren’t making the web, as far as news stories, then we’re not likely to hear about them right away.”
How to stay safe
Though fewer lightning fatalities this year is welcome news, lightning still poses risks, Jensenius and Vagasky caution.
Southeastern states are most at risk from lightning, although it affects all regions in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If the weather forecast predicts a high chance of thunderstorms, it’s best to stay indoors. If you hear thunder while outside, head inside immediately. And if for some reason you can’t make it to a safe location, stay away from open fields, tall objects and water.