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Finally, some good news in 2020: U.S. on track for fewest lightning fatalities in single year

One of weather’s bigger dangers has been surprisingly tame this year.

Cloud to ground U.S. lightning density from Jan. to Aug. 2020 (Chris Vagasky/Vaisala)
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You know things are bad when you try to buck yourself up by thinking, “Well, at least few people have died by lightning this year.” But if trends continue, 2020 will go down as the year the United States had its lowest number of lightning fatalities in recorded history.

By the end of September, the country typically sees 25 lightning-related deaths, based on 10-year average statistics. Right now we’re only at a dozen. That’s not to diminish these tragedies. Many of the people struck down were doing everyday things like walking or yard work, and two of the incidents involved groups of people (four men working on a deer blind this July in Pa., two of whom died, and two men killed while clearing tree debris in North Carolina in August after Hurricane Isaias). One man in South Carolina was killed in May after simply stepping out of his car.

The average year sees 26 lightning deaths in the U.S., but with lightning activity dropping off starkly in October, we’re in line to hit a record low. “We’re going to get out of lightning-fatality season here before too long, and the numbers we’re looking at are trending around 14 or 15” by year’s end, said Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist with Vaisala, a company which operates a lightning detection network, and a member of the National Lightning Safety Council.

What’s going on with the not-so-angry skies?

One likely explanation is a prevailing weather pattern that set up large areas of high pressure during the year’s normally busiest lightning period, said Vagasky, who wrote that there was 32 percent less lightning in May and June than the five-year average.

“We started looking back at the overall weather conditions for the United States for the spring and summer months. And one of the main things meteorologists will look at are the heights of the atmosphere at 500 millibars, basically the middle of the atmosphere,” he said in an interview. “At that level the heights were higher than normal — indicating higher pressure — and regions of higher pressures have sinking air. When you have that sinking air you can’t get the large scale lift needed to create thunderstorms.”

Vagasky and his colleagues also looked at atmospheric instability, or the amount of energy in the atmosphere available for thunderstorms to develop.

“Due in part to the high pressure that was over the Central Plains and Gulf Coast regions, the instability in the atmosphere was lower than normal,” he said. “So without an area of large-scale rising motion and without instability, that can really limit the amount of lightning.”

That’s not to say the country’s crackling zones in Florida, Texas and the Gulf Coast weren’t getting hammered. They were just seeing fewer strikes than usual. Still, seeing a year with just one lightning death in Florida is quite unusual (there were three in 2019, seven in 2018 and five in 2017). To account for this, we might have to consider not only the weather but also current events.

John Jensenius, a lightning-safety specialist at the National Lightning Safety Council, believes 2020′s nonstop news cycle might be muddying the count.

“The first real question — and this is a question I think all of us who are involved are asking ourselves — is are we hearing about all the fatalities and injuries? The simple answer is we just don’t know,” Jensenius said. “What we do know is much of the news is being taken up by the election and covid-19. Even if we weren’t seeing the fatalities we’d expect to see more injury stories, which we’re not seeing.”

Headline real estate aside, are shelter-in-place orders protecting more people from lightning? The pandemic has probably already hampered another kind of weather tragedy: children dying in hot cars. There were 23 pediatric-vehicular heatstroke deaths in the U.S. at the end of September, and with the mortality rate typically dropping off in October (though these deaths can occur in any month) it’s unlikely the nation will hit the annual average of 39 deaths.

“What we think is going on is that for the overall number, you don’t have people traveling to work as often and leaving their child in the car,” said Jan Null, adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State University and the operator of NoHeatStroke.org. “They also aren’t using child care as much, and a lot of the cases [historically] are from children being forgotten to be dropped off at child care.”

The downside is the makeup of these deaths has changed in 2020. The percentage of kids dying in hot cars from “gained access” — children entering the car on their own — is way up.

“Parents are multitasking even more than they usually do,” Null said. “They may be at home doing Zoom meetings and working, so children are getting out and gaining access to cars more often. So it’s sort of this good news, bad news.”

When ranking the activities involved in lightning deaths, hanging out at the beach comes in second. It could be that with many beaches closed, or with folks not wanting to be near others at public beaches, people are inadvertently lowering the mortality rate.

Or not. Most people killed by lightning in the United States (about 10 percent) are struck while fishing. Many others have died while camping, boating or riding a bike or motorcycle. Contrary to common perception, people seem to be engaged in these outdoor activities more than ever. Market research company the NPD Group calculates that sales of outdoors equipment of all kinds have surged during the pandemic, including a 31 percent increase in camping supplies and a 56 percent increase in paddling gear in June.

Some of those camping tents are undoubtedly going to parents trying to mollify kids bouncing off walls, who can pitch them in the backyard and move the family inside if the forecast turns stormy. And perhaps that’s the real explanation for the contradiction between gear sales and fewer lightning deaths: timing.

“People might be more selective about when they go out,” Jensenius said. “It could be that if in the past they had jobs that required them to be at work Monday through Friday between certain times, at this point maybe they have more free time during the week. They can be more selective about when they go out and pick days when thunderstorms aren’t in the forecast.”

Still, don’t take this year’s low count as license to erect a patio umbrella during a storm or stand in the middle of an empty field. Lightning has injured or killed many people when barely a rumble echoes through the sky, and the safest place to be during storms is inside a metal-topped vehicle or indoors away from wiring and plumbing.

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