What Are the Odds You'll Get Struck By Lightning?

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The chances of getting killed by lightning in Canada are generally less than one in a million. But some people's odds of encountering a deadly strike are much higher than average. Your susceptibility depends upon your age, gender and where you spend your leisure time in summer.

Lightning strikes kill or injure an estimated 120 to 190 people each year in Canada. In an average year, ten people die from lightning. They've either been hit directly or jolted when lightning struck something they were holding, like a golf club or phone, or even something nearby, such as a tree. Death most commonly results from cardiopulmonary arrest when the electric shock stops both heart and lung functioning.

Somewhere between 92 and 164 injuries are also caused by lightning each year in the country. Although intercepting voltage can produce injuries like paralysis, most people fully recover. Others are hurt from debris sent flying when the heat of a flash explodes a tree. The force of a strike can even toss people around. The hundreds of fires that lightning ignites annually typically result in another three deaths and 15 injuries.

These estimates of lightning fatalities and injuries were made by researchers at Environment Canada and University of Waterloo who reviewed newspaper accounts, hospital records and national statistics. Their study concludes that the annual incidence of fatalities in Canada from lightning strikes is three in ten million people. The rate of injuries from lightning each year totals 33 to 52 per ten million people.

The odds of having a lightning bolt suddenly change your life, however, are much higher for some people than others. Most of those getting hit are young males who hike, camp, golf, go boating or play baseball in Ontario, Quebec or Saskatchewan.

Men account for 84% of lightning fatalities. People younger than 46 years are more often involved in lightning accidents than are older people. Over 90% of deaths have happened in Ontario, Quebec and the prairie provinces, whereas none have been reported from Canada's territories.

It's not that these people are inherently attractive to electrical bolts. Rather, it's a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That tends to happen most when and where lightning is most frequent, and where lots of people recreate outdoors. Not surprisingly, nearly all incidents happen during summer, when thunderstorms and enjoying the outdoors are most common.

Still, compared with several decades ago, the rate that lightning kills people these days in Canada has dropped considerably. In the 1930s, about 24 people per ten million died annually from lightning. The decline in mortality rate is likely due to many factors, from improvements in medicine to people spending less time working in open fields.

Altogether between 1921 and 2003 there were 999 people reported killed by lightning in Canada. In United States, where there's both more thunderstorms and people, 20,758 deaths between 1900 and 1991 are attributed to lightning.

Reference

Brian Mills, Dan Unrau, Carla Parkinson, Brenda Jones, Jennifer Yessis, Kelsey Spring and Laurel Pentelow. 2008. Assessment of lightning-related fatality and injury risk in Canada. Natural Hazards. In press.

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