Weather is a part of living life that affects us daily. In extreme, it can have a dramatic effect on the memories we have of life events.
Lightning is the second leading killer of people in the USA through natures events, second only to flooding. Please read this article, and take care when outside!
Watches, warnings, public statements, advisories and similar products are issued for major meteorological hazards by the National Weather Service through media outlets to the public. During the summer, the dangers from thunderstorm winds, tornadoes, hail, and heavy rain are tracked and warned. Hurricanes and tropical storms, flash floods and heat waves also are major subjects of forecasts and warnings during the warm season. During winter, guidance is given about the important threats from snow, blizzards, freezing rain, low temperatures, and wind chill.

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December 6, 2002

Nevertheless, the summaries of weather-related fatalities continue to show lightning as the second most frequent killer in the United States (Figure 1). When an underreporting of lightning deaths by 25 to 30% is taken into account (Mogil et al., 1977; Lopez et al., 1995; Lushine, 1996), about 100 people a year are killed by lightning in the U.S.

National Weather Service annual summaries for several recent years report that an additional 325 to 500 people a year are injured by lightning. When an underreporting of injuries on the order of 40% is taken into account, as found in Colorado by Lopez et al. (1995), it is likely that more than 500 people a year are injured by lightning in the U.S. Recently, Florida alone has been found to have more than 100 injuries per year (Paxton and Morales, 1997).

The number of lightning casualties, which is the sum of deaths and injuries combined, does not change much from year to year. The annual death tolls from tornadoes and hurricanes are usually dependent on a few major events, but the annual totals of lightning deaths are due to single deaths from a large number of events. For example, 91% of the lightning incidents in the United States since 1959 involving only deaths had one fatality; the corresponding number for injuries is 68% (Curran et al., 1997).

Corresponding author: Ronald Holle, National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA, 1313 Halley Circle, Norman, OK 73069. Email:

FIGURE 1. Average annual number of storm-related deaths in the United States from 1966 to 1995.


The scope of the lightning hazard is now better understood than had been the case in the past. From 1992 to 1995, the National Lightning Detection Network identified an average of 21,746,000 cloud-to-ground flashes per year in the U.S. (Orville, 1991; Orville and Silver, 1997). It has been found that lightning strikes the ground in most locations of the country each year. It also occurs every day in the summer, and on all but a few days during the rest of the year. Given that lightning strikes the ground in such large numbers and is so widespread, it is not possible to expect specific warnings for every lightning flash for each person. Indeed, lightning-specific warnings are not issued regularly in the U.S. except at highly vulnerable locations such as at the Kennedy Space Center, at golf tournaments, and a few other situations.

Taking into account the nature of the single-victim event, it seems most appropriate to provide education to the public so that direct responsibility for personal safety from the lightning hazard is taken by each individual. The problem is compounded by the fact that many people experience and survive a close lightning strike every year. The event may have been while safely inside a building or a vehicle, or outside in a vulnerable situation. These experiences also lead to a tendency to take chances. Since all lightning strikes can kill a person, it can be stated that:

Lightning is the most dangerous and frequently-encountered weather hazard that most people experience each year.