The Silent Disaster – Why do we hear so little about lightning?

Posted: May 24, 2012 by Danielle Kileff in Disaster, Disaster Risk Reduction
Tags: , , ,

How can we perceive something that makes such a colossal sound as a silent phenomenon? Yes, light travels almost 900, 000 times the speed of sound. So when lightning strikes, we often don’t hear thunder until seconds later.  But this isn’t the kind of silence I am talking about. I am talking about the fact that lightning kills an estimated 24, 000 people and injures a further 240, 000 each year, yet it rarely features in our news headlines or as a significant topic in disaster studies.

Lightning never strikes twice?

Lightning never strikes twice?

Out of weather-related deaths, lightning kills the second largest number of people in the United States, second only to flooding. Every year it kills more than hurricanes and tornadoes combined and costs the US around US$5 billion annually. We also frequently hear people say, “lightning never strikes twice” but lightning strikes the earth millions of times every day, with some areas having an uneven share. The map shows the frequency distribution of lightning per year, highlighting parts of Africa as particularly lightning prone.  In fact, Zimbabwe gained the world record for the most people killed by a single lightning bolt in 1975 when a strike killed twenty one people.

Annual Distribution of Lightning Strikes

Lightning has also shown its capacity to increase our vulnerability to other forms of hazard. This was experienced in Oklahoma last month when lightning rendered Woodward’s weather warning system useless during a tornado emergency by striking the tower used to activate it.

Even more alarming is the role that lightning plays in starting bushfires. Lightning isn’t always accompanied by rain, so when it strikes desiccated grasslands the consequences can be catastrophic. On January 8th 2003, eighty-seven fires were started by lightning in Eastern Victoria, Australia.

So, not only does lightning have substantial annual death and injury rates; not only does it increase our susceptibility to other natural hazards through damaging early warning systems; it also triggers hazards that have had catastrophic consequences. Why then do we hear so little about it?

One reason might be that it doesn’t conform to our conventional understanding of what constitutes a disaster. For a disaster to be entered into the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction database, at least one of the following criteria must be present:

  • A report of 10 or more people killed
  • A report of 100 people affected
  • A declaration of a state of emergency by the relevant government
  • A request by the national government for international assistance

Because lightning deaths are so widely distributed, both temporally and spatially, any one lightning incident rarely meets these criteria. However, for a natural phenomenon to result in so many annual deaths and still not be granted disaster status is disturbing. Perhaps there is a need for lightning to be viewed in aggregate terms.

Another reason might be our familiarity with lightning as something that occurs on a regular basis in some areas. We know that risk perception is often governed by familiarity, with certain hazards being tolerated and accepted more easily purely because they are something we have become accustomed to. Maybe the same thing can be said for lightning.

Whatever the reason may be, there is a need for us to rethink the way we approach lightning. We need to recognise its relevance and implications for disaster risk reduction initiatives. This could include establishing lightning conductors in susceptible areas (especially open rural spaces where there are few tall constructions) in order to channel strikes away from vulnerable people. It also may include raising awareness. Many people are struck by lightning because they are unaware that certain activities increase their vulnerability during storms or because they don’t know how to avoid it.  If we don’t address these issues, we risk overlooking a disaster with vast consequences and allowing it to continue its devastation in silence.

  1. Ilan Kelman says:

    Excellent blog, highlighting an important topic. I have collected some literature on lightning deaths in comparison to other disaster deaths but there is also a lot more out there. So there is plenty of scope in research, and in translating that to action, for reducing lightning casualties.

  2. I have been working this into DRR education for a number of years (since 2008 anyway) and have included it in assemblies for schools! You can see a blog post I made about it here: (sorry for the long url) as well as some resources. I also run this social network for DRR education and have started using comic strips to get the message across and these can be viewes on the Edu4DRR Facebook group page (where at least two of them are aimed at lightning safety education!) as well as the Disaster Researcher in Europe page on Facebook. I hope this is useful.

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