The Shocking Truth

What is the most dangerous and frequently encountered weather hazard experienced by people each year in many parts of the United States, including Montana? If you said lightning you would be right, if not you are in good company. Many people underrate the dangers of lightning, despite it being one of the country's biggest storm killers in the last 40 years.

Coming from a country with infrequent lightning events, my first summer in Montana was also my first up-close experience with thunderstorms. After several too-close-for-comfort lightning incidents left me feeling wary, the blasé attitude Montanans had toward lightning surprised me.

I started one river trip under calm clear skies, which morphed—at a frightening speed—into voluminous layers of black and gray storm clouds. As the storm approached, bolts of blue and pink lightning slammed into nearby mountains, and thunder reverberated through the hull of our boat. Some boaters took shelter under trees along the riverbank while others continued unfazed, drifting lazily down the middle of the river. At the take-out the air felt leaden and charged and tasted metallic. People meandered around casually sorting out their gear, oblivious as the storm played out overhead. Finally, feeling the need to take evasive action, I pulled my husband into the truck and made him wait it out with me there.

I wondered whether I should take my lead from people who had lived here half their lives and chill out. But when 11 people were struck by lightning at Old Faithful and a fisherman was hit in Paradise Valley, I knew it was time to listen to my intuition and educate myself.

Why do people underestimate the danger of lightning? It is commonplace, and many people have close encounters with lightning and come through unscathed. This familiarity and "negative event feedback" can reduce one's perception of the hazard. Also, lightning injuries or fatalities that typically involve one or two people at a time attract less attention than tornadoes, which may affect dozens of people in one sensational event.

But here is the thing with lightning: every strike has the ability to kill or injure—it just needs to hit you. Your job is to make sure it doesn’t. It is difficult to be truly "safe" if you are caught outside in a thunderstorm. Take responsibility for your personal safety and educate yourself before this year's summer cycle heats up.

Being hit by lightning may not be as unlikely as you think. Based on annual lightning strikes (the U.S. has 25 million cloud-to-ground strikes per year), fatalities, and injuries, in your lifetime there is a 1-in-300 chance someone you know will be hit by lightning, a 1-in-3,000 chance you will be hit, and a 1-in-240,000 chance of any individual being hit in a given year.

In the U.S. there are approximately 67 lightning deaths per year (averaged over 30 years), and ten times that many people are hit and survive. Survival sounds like good news, but the serious ongoing health issues and disabilities an individual may experience, such as chronic pain syndrome, depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome, and reduced neuron-cognitive functioning, can severely impact quality of life.