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Hazard Awareness

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.

Over the past decade in the United States, lightning fatalities killed around 35 people per year. For a detailed summary of lightning statistics for the last decade in the United States and additional safety information, visit the National Weather Service Lightning Safety Tips and Resources page. 

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.

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.

Photo of Impressive Lightning
Photo by Matthew Gustke

Phote of Impressive Lightning
Rio Rancho, Photo by Chris Armijo

Lightning Safety
  • Watch for signs of an approaching thunderstorm
  • Postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms are imminent. This is your best way to avoid being caught in a dangerous situation
  • REMEMBER if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to a storm to be struck by lightning
  • Get inside a house, large shelter or an all-metal vehicle (not a convertible). If safe shelter is not available, find a low spot away from trees, fences, and poles
  • 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).
  • Remain clear of tall, isolated trees and telephone poles.
  • Stay away from wire fences, clotheslines or metal pipes and rails.
Statistics for New Mexico

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
Lightning fatalities have shown a steady decline from the 60s through 90s, with a sharp drop-off in the past 10 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 62, while for the past ten years the average has dropped to less than 35 per year.
Lightning Fatalaties
Additional Information

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.