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Lightning Strikes Out
Science Soup
Posted: October 18, 2017


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James Church’s fishing line flies through the air. A bright orange light flashes and strikes the lead weight at the end of his line. A powerful jolt travels through the fishing pole, into his stomach, and out of his hand. He has been struck by lightning.

Once, lightning was one of the biggest killers in the natural world. In 1940, people started keeping track of deaths caused by lightning in the United States. Back then, it killed more than 300 people every year. But now the count is going down—way down. Only 13 people have died from lightning strikes so far this year. That’s the lowest number ever recorded!

Does that make you want to go puddle-jumping in a thunder storm? Don’t. Just because there are fewer deaths from lightning doesn’t mean there’s less actual lightning. Meteorologists (weather forecasters) say we get just as many lightning strikes as we used to.

What Changed?

Here are some guesses. These days, Americans spend a lot less time outside than they used to. Fewer people farm. Decades ago, more farmers stood out in the fields. They were the tallest objects, making them most likely to get hit by lightning. If we hear thunder rumble today, we are often indoors already or can easily hop into our safe cars.

Improved medical care has also saved many lightning strike victims. Now people can use defibrillators, machines that give a heart a jump start. More people know how to perform CPR. They are ready to help if someone nearby is in trouble.

Staying Safe

Do you know the rules of lightning safety? Stay away from corded phones. Cellular phones are safe. Don’t touch electrical equipment such as computers, TVs, or cords. Remote controls are safe. Avoid plumbing. Don’t wash your hands, shower, or hand-wash dishes. Most of all, “When thunder roars, go indoors.” That saying has probably saved many lives. Even a three-year-old can remember it!

Mr. Church recalls what it felt like to wake up after the lightning strike. “I couldn’t move,” he says. “It was like an elephant was sitting on me.” Mr. Church says his eyes were working. His brain was working. But none of his muscles would work. He had to be treated in a hospital.

Now Mr. Church has big scars on his stomach. Parts of his fingers are gone. But he can walk and move around—and probably even still fish.