Lightning Impacts

TORRO's Lightning Impacts Database for the British Isles
TORRO has been researching thunderstorms since it was founded in 1974. In 1993, it began developing a database of lightning impacts in the British Isles. This national database enables TORRO to undertake research on the nature, frequency, distribution and risks of lightning strikes to people, animals and property. It is proposed to link this database to other European national databases and so create a European Lightning Impacts Database.

Information entered into TORRO's Lightning Impacts Database is gathered from reports in meteorological journals (Journal of Meteorology, Weather, COL Bulletin, etc.), the media (e.g. local and national daily and weekly newspapers, local and national radio and television reports), weather enthusiasts' mailing lists (e.g. TORRO's mailing list; the British Storm Watchers' Community mailing list), TORRO members, from those directly or indirectly affected by a lightning event, and through requests to readers of this website to send in reports, press clippings, photographs, etc. (see contact details below).

Risks Posed by Lightning to People
Lightning is dangerous. Currently, about 30-60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain of whom, on average, three may be killed. This compares with about 75 deaths in the much larger USA. The number of people killed by lightning each year has varied markedly. For example, the worst year in recent decades was 1982 when 14 people were killed whereas there were no deaths in 2000 or 2001 - the first years without lightning fatalities since 1937.

There are around 300,000 ground strikes by lightning every year in Britain. On average (based on a ten-year period), this means that someone is struck once every 6,000 strikes and someone killed once every 100,000 strikes. A 'thunderstorm day' may produce up to 10,000 ground strikes although the exceptional day of 24 July 1994 produced 85,000 ground strikes.

Decrease in Lightning Fatalities
Lightning fatalities have been recorded on death certificates in England and Wales since 1852. Analyses indicate that the annual average number of fatalities each half century in England and Wales has fallen from 19 for the period 1852 to 1899, through 12 for the period from 1900 to 1949, to five for the period 1950 to 1999. The marked reduction in fatalities during this period, even though population increased three-fold, reflects:

  • fewer people working out-of-doors, especially in farming;
  • people working in safer conditions e.g. construction and farm workers drive vehicles with enclosed cabs; electricity pylon repair workers are given warnings of any thunderstorms headed their way; and
  • better awareness of the dangers of lightning and a willingness to respond accordingly e.g. thunderstorm warnings are more accurate and more readily available today for, say, fell-walkers and mountain climbers; many more people have knowledge of resuscitation methods; ambulances are better equipped and usually reach someone struck by lightning quite rapidly.

Males Versus Female Deaths
In England and Wales, between 1852 and 1999, about five out of six people who were killed by lightning were male, figures similar to the USA. Such a statistic generally reflects that more men are employed in outdoor employment than women.

Where Lightning Strikes
Lightning may strike a person directly when out in the open or indirectly from, say, a side flash from a nearby tree. When lightning strikes the ground, radial currents spread out from that location and these may give someone nearby an electrical shock. Lightning striking a house may result in the current passing through metal pipes and electrical wiring. This can mean that someone touching a radiator, light switch or a telephone when a house is struck experiences an electrical shock.

Taking Precautions to Reduce the Risk of Being Struck by Lightning
Fortunately most people survive a lightning strike. While the chances of being struck and killed by lightning in Britain are small, you can improve your chances of not being struck in the first place by following some simple precautions during a thunderstorm:

  • Avoid wide, open spaces or exposed hilltops and don't shelter beneath tall or isolated trees. Seek shelter inside a large building or a motor vehicle. Check and take heed of weather forecasts of thunderstorms when planning a day walking in the hills, sailing and playing golf.
  • If you are swimming, windsurfing or sailing, get to the shore as quickly as possible. Move away from wide, open beaches and seek shelter inside a large building or motor vehicle.
  • If caught out in the open during a thunderstorm, discontinue carrying umbrellas, fishing rods, golf clubs and other large metal objects. Keep away from metal objects such as motorcycles, golf carts, bicycles, wire fences and rails
  • If your hair stands on end or nearby objects begin to buzz, move quickly away as lightning may be about to strike. These effects happen because the positive electrical charges forming at the ground are streaming upwards to try to make contact with the advancing downward negatively-charged 'leader'. Lightning does not always follow, as not all of the upward discharges make contact with the leader, but it is best to move away as a precaution. Seek shelter in a large building or motor vehicle.
  • If caught out in the open with no shelter nearby, move to a place of lower elevation such as a hollow or dry ditch. Crouch down (to lower your height) with both feet close together. Do not place your feet wide apart or lie flat on the ground as this will increase the difference in voltage across your body, increasing the electrical charge you may receive from radial ground currents, if lightning strikes the ground nearby. Tuck your head in and place your hands on your knees.
  • If inside a motor vehicle stay there during the thunderstorm. It will protect you as long as you do not touch the metal of the car body. A lightning strike will normally be safely conducted over the metal bodywork of the vehicle before earthing to the ground over the wet tyres (that are sometimes damaged slightly).
  • When indoors, keep away from windows, avoid touching metal pipes or radiators. If lightning strikes a television aerial, the cable may conduct the current into the building where it can jump to other wiring or metal piping circuits. Do not use a telephone except in an emergency.
  • Finally, give first-aid (and contact paramedics promptly) to anyone struck by lightning to help them recover. You will not receive an electrical shock as they carry no electrical charge. Act promptly.

TORRO Lightning Impacts Division Contact Details
Lightning strikes to people and animals: Professor Derek M Elsom, TORRO, Department of Geography, Oxford Brookes University, Headington, Oxford, OX3 0BP, UK. E-mail: Tel: +44 (0)1865 483761/484436. Fax: +44(0)1865-483937. Please send details of lightning strikes to people (press clippings, personal experiences) to add to the national database.

Lightning strikes to property: Jonathan Webb, TORRO Thunderstorm division director, PO Box 84, Oxford OX1 4NP. Email Jonathan Webb. Please send details of lightning strikes to animals or property (details, press clippings) to add to the national database.

TORRO Papers about Lightning Strikes to People in the British Isles
Elsom, D.M. (2002) Lightning injuries and fatalities in the United Kingdom. In Kithil, R. (ed.) Lightning Safety Handbook. U.S. National Lightning Safety Institute, Louisville, section 2.2.5.

Elsom, D.M. (2001) Deaths and injuries caused by lightning in the United Kingdom: analyses of two databases. Atmospheric Research, 56, 325-334.

Callagan, J. (1999) Medical aspects of lightning injuries. J.Meteorology, 24 (242), 280-284.

Dinakaran, S., Desai, S.P. and Elsom, D.M. (1998) Telephone-mediated lightning injury causing cataract, Injury, 29, 645-646. Elsom, D.M. (1996) Surviving being struck by lightning: a preliminary assessment of the risk of lightning injuries and death in the British Isles, J.Meteorology, 21 (209), 197-206.

Elsom, D.M. (1994) Injuries and deaths caused by lightning in the UK: a new national database, J.Meteorology, 19 (193), 322-327.

Elsom, D.M. (1993) Deaths caused by lightning in England and Wales, 1852-1990, Weather, 48, 83-90.

Elsom, D.M. (1989) Learn to live with lightning, New Scientist, 122 (1670), 24 June, 54-8.