A jagged bolt of lightning illuminates the night sky as its claw-like tentacles reach down to a series of rocky outcrops.
OUTDOOR LIFE

What to Know About Thunder and Lightning

An introduction to Columbia’s 4-part series on Lightning safety in the outdoors
BY: NANCY BOUCHARD
“If the Thunder Don’t Get You, then the Lightning Will,” is a line from a popular anthem. It’s also a quick reminder about the ever-present danger of lightning. Lightning has the ability to awe us with its fiery bolts and ferocious intensity. That roar of thunder, jarring crack, and inevitable boom has frightened many a child, aggravated countless pets, and humbled even more adults. Mother Nature’s extravagant light shows captivate us as they light up the sky, but they can also be deadly.
A high alpine peak is struck by a thick zig-zag of lightning that extends high above the mountain tops.

How Seriously Do You Need to Take Thunder and Lightning?

How seriously do we take thunderstorms and lightning? Not seriously enough, is probably the answer. John Bouchard, a legend in alpine climbing, was jolted by lightning on the Eiger and Devil’s Tower, and later struck on an ascent of France’s Walker Spur (up the north face of 13,806-foot Grandes Jorasses). He tumbled, unconscious for more than 50 feet and came to in time to wrap his arm through a rope to arrest the fall. He survived intact, except for a burned hand and scorched gloves and socks. But many people aren’t so lucky.

Don’t think we’re discouraging you from enjoying the great outdoors. On the contrary, we want you to get out there, have fun, get exercise, and explore, time and time again. But, just like critical decisions on picking the right apparel and gear to match conditions, we want you to be armed with the right knowledge to get you out there and back, safe and sound.

We spoke with John Jensenius, who is arguably the country’s foremost lightning safety specialist. He spent more than four decades as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service and helped to create the National Lightning Safety Council. Jensenius has spent years tracking, documenting and studying lightning fatalities in the US. His work is relied upon by the National Weather Service and CDC (Center for Disease Control). Jensenius spearheaded Lightning Safety Awareness Week (the last week in June) which through hard data, scientific advice and educational outreach, has helped to reduce lightning deaths and injuries across the US.
This map of the US shows each state (including Hawaii) and the number of lightning fatalities for the years 2006 and 2023. Florida has the most fatalities.
The numbers are shocking. Since 2006, there have been 480 fatalities in the US due to lightning. That’s not including secondary deaths (say you are jolted by lightning, lose your balance and fall off a cliff). And while there’s no national data on non-fatal lightning strikes, experts believe that for every person who didn’t make it, there’s probably nine times as many injuries, many permanent, that run the gamut from burns to permanent neurological damage. And of course, there’s the impact on families and friends.

Experts say that while most people have about a 1/20,000 chance of being struck by lightning in their lifetime, the odds of knowing someone who’s been killed or seriously injured by a lightning strike are 1/2000. It probably comes as no surprise, but outdoor leisure activities are responsible for 6 out of 10 lightning fatalities.

The bottom line for lightning safety is “When thunder roars, Go indoors!” Those five simple words are the result of years of lightning research by the National Weather Service. It is a harsh reality, but there is no place outside during a thunderstorm where you are safe from lightning.

If you hear thunder or the sky looks threatening, you need to be inside a structure with a ceiling, walls, wiring and plumbing as they act as a conduit to the ground. A car is a good refuge, as long as it has a metal roof. Many of the victims were trying to get to a safe place when they were stuck but waited too long. We’ll talk more about staying safe outdoors in parts 2-4 of our Lightning Safety Series.
This chart shows fatal lightning incidents by month from 2006 to 2023. Of the 480 cases, the majority occur in July.
If you are out for multiple days (fishing, camping or backpacking), plan activities for early in the day and be back to safety before noon as thunderstorms are fueled by the heat of the day. While thunderstorms can occur any month, any time of day, more than 72 percent of fatal strikes in the last 18 years occurred in June, July and August, and in the afternoon.

If you are planning on fishing, boating, camping or taking a long day hike, you need to watch the weather, both on a weather app and by paying close attention. The best advice is to closely monitor the forecast and be willing to cancel or postpone your outdoor activity if thunderstorms are forecast. There are plenty of great weather apps available. The National Weather Service is one of our favorites.

Check out the next installments in Columbia's four part series on thunder and lightning safety in the outdoors.
  • Part 2: Lightning Safety Facts and Tips
  • Part 3: Thunder and Lightning Safety for Camping and Hiking
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