Golfers or anglers? Which are more likely to die from lightning strikes?
It may come as a shock (sorry) that between 2006 and the present, more than three times as many people died from lightning while fishing compared to playing golf.
During that 12-year period, 368 people died from lightning strikes in the U.S., an average of about 30 annually. That’s about the same number of people as killed by tornadoes and more people than died in hurricanes.
Hundreds more are injured every year, including many who will suffer permanent disabilities. While only a small percentage of lightning-strike victims die, many survivors must learn to live with serious lifelong pain and neurological disabilities.
About two thirds of the lightning-related deaths are associated with outdoor recreational activities. Fishing topped the list with 34 fatalities. Boating also ranked high at 17 deaths. (Most of those deaths occurred on small boats with no cabins.) By comparison, those who died from lightning strikes while golfing numbered nine during the same period.
Officials at the National Weather Service (NWS) hope to reduce the number of lightning-related deaths by making more anglers aware of those facts and encouraging safer behavior. A similar campaign targeting the golf community helped reduce lightning-related deaths on golf courses by 75 percent since 2001.
John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the NWS, said the large number of fishing and boating-related 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.
Each year, thunderstorms produce an estimated 20 to 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes in the United States, and each one of those flashes is a potential killer. Some flashes strike directly under the storm where it is raining, but others reach out away from the storm where people perceive the lightning threat to be low or nonexistent. These often catch people by surprise.
Lightning can strike from 10 miles away, so if people can hear thunder, they are in immediate danger. Many lightning deaths occur ahead of storms or after storms have seemingly passed.
Fishermen and boaters can best protect themselves by monitoring weather and postponing outdoor activities when thunderstorms are forecast. Consider purchasing a portable, battery-powered, tone-alert NOAA weather radio and installing a weather-alert app on your smartphone. These will allow you to monitor short-term forecasts for changing weather conditions, and their tone-alert features will automatically tell you when the NWS issues a severe thunderstorm watch or warning.
It’s also important to remember the NWS’s lightning safety motto: When thunder roars, go indoors! The safest place to retreat is a fully enclosed building with wiring and plumbing. These provide the best protection, says the NWS. Sheds, picnic shelters, tents or covered porches do NOT protect you from lightning.
If a sturdy building is not nearby, get into a hard-topped metal vehicle and close all the windows. Stay inside until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder.
The NWS says if you are out fishing or boating and cannot get back to land and safety, drop anchor and get as low as possible. Large boats with cabins, especially those with lightning-protection systems properly installed or metal marine vessels, are relatively safe. Remember to stay inside the cabin and away from any metal surfaces. Stay off the radio unless it is an emergency.
If caught outdoors, you also should get away from the water and do your best to avoid open areas such as beaches. Don’t be the tallest object in the area. Stay away from the tops of hills and ridges, isolated tall trees, towers or utility poles. Lightning tends to strike the tallest objects in an area.
Also, stay away from metal conductors such as wires or fences. Metal does not attract lightning, but lightning can travel long distances through it. The same with water.
For safety’s sake, it is also essential for people in charge of activities such as fishing tournaments to understand the dangers of lightning, have a lightning safety plan in place and follow the plan when thunder is heard or lightning is seen.
The plan should give clear and specific safety guidelines to eliminate errors in judgment. These questions should be addressed in the plan:
- When should activities be stopped? (When thunder is heard, lightning is seen, skies look threatening or warnings are issued.)
- Where should people go for safety? (See above, but, when possible, designate specific locales.)
- When should activities be resumed? (No sooner than 30 minutes after the last thunder is heard.)
- Who should monitor the weather and make the decision to stop activities? (A designated person or persons with access to weather warning systems who know the safety plan’s guidelines and are empowered to assure the guidelines are followed.)
Despite all precautions, it’s still possible someone could be struck by lightning. If that happens, it’s important that others on the scene act fast. Lightning victims do not carry an electrical charge, are safe to touch and need urgent medical attention. Some deaths can be prevented if the victim receives the proper first aid immediately.
The NWS says to follow these steps:
- Call for help. Call 911 or your local ambulance service.
- Give first aid. Do not delay CPR if the person is unresponsive or not breathing. Use an automatic external defibrillator if one is available.
- If possible, move the victim to a safer place. Lightning can strike twice. Don’t become a victim.
For more information, visit www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov, where you’ll find NWS lightning links, forecasts and assessment.