Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
In February of 1997, a small group of friends and relatives went ice fishing on Moosehead Lake in Maine, not knowing what the day would hold for them. According to an old account by the National Weather Service, the friends set to fishing amid the snow, sleet and rain and heard a sound like “freight train cars banging together.” They later realized this to be thunder and as hail began to fall, piled their gear onto their snowmobiles, to leave.
As they worked, they saw “flickers or sparkles” in the air and smelled a weird smell, sign of a charge building around them. Then as they rode away, they saw beams of light rise up from the lake as “fingers of lightning” and listened as a bolt hit a tall pine tree several hundred yards away. It launched dirt and rocks across the lake, and a boy named Robert, part of the fishing group, flew off the back of a tote sled.
One of the “fingers,” a lightning streamer – akin to the bolts that shoot from a Tesla coil – had discharged and knocked the boy unconscious. He survived but suffered lightning burns and lost all memory of the day, which led to a struggle with headaches later in life.
Christopher Griggs, an emergency medicine physician with Atrium Health, says in an article that such injuries “can range anywhere from a mild burn on your body to damage to your brain to death. It really depends on how close you are and how exposed you were to the lightning strike.”
The most severe injuries tend to come from direct strikes, according to the National Weather Service. Ground strikes, however, are more common and account for 50 percent of strikes. For these, lightning fans out across the ground, generally resulting in less severe injuries. In other cases, a charge may jump from a tree or fence to a person.
Read More: How Humans Perceived Lightning Throughout Time
Worldwide, lightning injures about 240,000 people a year, this paper estimates, and kills about 24,000, mostly from heart attack or respiratory failure. Meanwhile, up to 74 percent of survivors suffer from some sort of long-term disability, such as muscle weakness, difficulty thinking or sensory loss.
During direct strikes, the current travels through either the cardiovascular or nervous systems, or both. As it also passes through the skin, it may boil the sweat and inflict burns, and it may also cause the famous Lichtenberg figures – red fern shapes that creep across the skin. While scientists have debated their cause, a 2007 report suggests inflammation and electrical damage to capillaries.
Burns typically occur when the strike converts electrical energy to thermal energy, as in the round burns found where the current exits the body, and the aforementioned sweat burns. Even worse damage may result if the victim’s clothes melt or catch on fire at a time they are ill-prepared to stop, drop and roll.
Strikes often result in keraunoparalysis, a temporary paralysis of the lower limbs that takes a few hours to go away. Blown ear-drums are also common, and the percussive nature of lightning can also damage the eyes. Pregnant women struck by lightning often survive, but their unborn children often don’t.
For whatever reason, lightning strikes men far more often than women – since 2013, such incidents have killed 172 men in the U.S. and only 50 women.
A 2022 report by the National Lightning Safety Council speculated that men, “are unwilling to be inconvenienced by the threat of lightning, are in situations that make it difficult to get to a safe place in a timely manner, don’t react quickly to the lightning threat, or any combination of these explanations.”
The report found fishing to be the deadliest activity (and not golfing, as is sometimes said), followed by a list of activities not easy to avoid in total: beach activities, camping, farming and ranching, riding a bike or motorcycle or ATV, boating, attending social gatherings, walking to or from home, roofing, construction, soccer and yard work.
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