Photo by Todd Shoemake


Lightning is the MOST UNDERRATED weather hazard. On average, only floods kill more people. Lightning makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces one single bolt or ten thousand bolts.

In the United States, an average of 49 people are reported killed each year by lightning.

There were 26 deaths due to lightning in 2015 and two were in New Mexico.

Find out the facts and statistics about lightning deaths in previous years.

Tornadoes, hail, and wind gusts get the most attention, but only lightning can strike well outside the storm itself. Lightning is often the first thunderstorm hazard to arrive and the last to leave.

Phote of Impressive Lightning Santa Teresa, Photo by John Fausett

Photo of Impressive Lightning
Photo by Matthew Gustke

Lightning is one of the most capricious and unpredictable characteristics of a thunderstorm. Because of this, no one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from lightning. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death.

Remember, YOU are ultimately responsible for your personal safety, and should take appropriate action when threatened by lightning.


 Lightning Safety:

  • Watch for signs of an approaching thunderstorm
  • NO PLACE OUTSIDE is safe from lightning during a thunderstorm
  • Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a storm
  • REMEMBER if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to a storm to be struck by lightning
  • Get inside a STRONG BUILDING or a hardtop vehicle (not a convertible).
  • Avoid contacting inside wiring and plumbing during a thunderstorm; this includes appliances and corded phones
  • If boating or swimming, get out of boats and away from the water, get to land and find shelter immediately
  • Only use the telephone in an emergency (cell phones are safe to use).
  • Stay in shelter for 30 minutes after the last thunder
  • If someone is struck by lightning, call for help immediately
  • Lightning Risk Management for Backcountry Campers & Hikers

As shown in the diagram below, a vast majority (at least 78%) of lightning fatalities or injuries occur outside. It is clear why we stress to go inside a building for protection, or if you are in a vehicle, stay in there (except for a convertible).

Pie chart showing where people were located when killed or injured from lightning

The diagram below further breaks down the fatalities and injuries into specific activities. Residents have lost their lives due to lightning during both work and recreational activities - from working in the fields or on a tractor, to riding horses, biking, hiking, or just simply walking outside. Many think that if they are out of the rain shaft of a thunderstorm they are safe - but lightning can strike miles from the main core of a thunderstorm.

Pie chart showing what people were doing when killed or injured from lightning
The graph on the right breaks down the fatalities and injuries by decade between 1959 and May 2015. The fatalities show a steady decline from the 60s through 90s, with a sharp drop-off in the past 15 years. Injuries peaked in the late 70s and 80s and have dropped off considerably since. The recent trends illustrate a sharp reduction in fatalities and injuries, supporting the idea that the people of New Mexico have become much more educated on lightning and its potential dangers. This reduction in both fatalities and injuries has also been noted in the lightning statistics for the country - the average number of deaths per year using a 30-year average is 51, while for the past ten years the average has dropped to around 35.
New Mexico lightning fatalities and injury trends over the five decades

Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. At the same time, it also is one of the least understood. While lightning is simply a gigantic spark of static electricity (the same kind of electricity that sometimes shocks you when you touch a doorknob), scientists do not have a complete grasp on how it works, or how it interacts with solar flares impacting the upper atmosphere or the earth's electromagnetic field.

Lightning has been seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, and in large hurricanes. However, it is most often seen in thunderstorms.

Did you know?

  • The air near a lightning strike is heated to 50,000 degrees F! That is hotter than the surface of the sun!
  • The average flash could light a 100-watt light bulb for more than 3 months.
  • At any given moment, there can be as many as 2,000 thunderstorms occurring across the globe. This translates to more than 14.5 MILLION storms each year. NASA satellite research indicated these storms produce lightning flashes about 40 times a second worldwide.
  • Lightning occurs with all thunderstorms.

For much more information on lightning and lightning safety, click here to go to JetStream, the online school for weather.

June 19-25, 2016 is National Lightning Safety Awareness Week

 Additional Resources:

Lightning Risk Management for Backcountry Campers & Hikers

Lightning Protection from the Lightning Protection Institute:

 Lightning Protection from the Lightning Safety Alliance:

 Lightning damages from the Insurance Information Institute:


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