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Lightning deaths in the UK: a 30-year analysis of the factors contributing to people being struck and killed

Authors:
  • Tornado and Storm Research Organisation

Abstract and Figures

In the UK in the past 30 years (1987-2016), 58 people were known to have been killed by lightning, that is, on average, two people per year. The average annual risk of being struck and killed was one person in 33 million. If only the past ten years are considered, a period with fewer average lightning deaths, the risk was one person in 71 million. The likelihood of being killed by lightning is much less than it was a century ago when it was around one person in every two million per year. The current UK lightning risk is compared with USA risk. The risk of being killed by lightning in the UK differs by the activity being undertaken at the time. This paper groups activities into three broad types. During the past 30 years, work-related activities accounted for 15 per cent of all deaths, daily routine for 13 per cent, and outdoor leisure, recreation and sports pursuits for 72 per cent. Leisure walking on hills, mountains and cliff-tops together with participating in outdoor sports activities, notably cricket, fishing, football, golf, rugby and watersports, gave rise to around half of all leisure, recreation and sports activity deaths. The highest number of deaths occurred amongst the 20-29 year-age-range. Men accounted for 83 per cent of all lightning deaths reflecting the higher proportion of male participation in outdoor work-related activities and specific outdoor leisure activities (hill and mountain walking) and sports activities (cricket, fishing, football and golf). Sundays gave rise to 26 per cent of all deaths reflecting this is a day when large numbers of people participate in higher lightning risk leisure activities. The four months from May to August accounted for 80 per cent of all deaths. A specific study is conducted of the synoptic and weather situations during days when thunderstorms developed and resulted in deaths amongst people undertaking leisure walking activities. Overall, this paper highlights the factors that should help to lessen the risk of being killed by lightning in the future.
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© THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY 8
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
ABSTRACT
In the UK in the past 30 years (1987-2016), 58 people were known to have been killed by lightning,
that is, on average, two people per year. The average annual risk of being struck and killed was
one person in 33 million. If only the past ten years are considered, a period with fewer average
lightning deaths, the risk was one person in 71 million. The likelihood of being killed by lightning
is much less than it was a century ago when it was around one person in every two million per
year. The current UK lightning risk is compared with USA risk. The risk of being killed by lightning
in the UK differs by the activity being undertaken at the time. This paper groups activities into
three broad types. During the past 30 years, work-related activities accounted for 15 per cent of
all deaths, daily routine for 13 per cent, and outdoor leisure, recreation and sports pursuits for 72
per cent. Leisure walking on hills, mountains and cliff-tops together with participating in outdoor
sports activities, notably cricket, fishing, football, golf, rugby and watersports, gave rise to around
half of all leisure, recreation and sports activity deaths. The highest number of deaths occurred
amongst the 20-29 year-age-range. Men accounted for 83 per cent of all lightning deaths reflecting
the higher proportion of male participation in outdoor work-related activities and specific outdoor
leisure activities (hill and mountain walking) and sports activities (cricket, fishing, football and golf).
Sundays gave rise to 26 per cent of all deaths reflecting this is a day when large numbers of people
participate in higher lightning risk leisure activities. The four months from May to August accounted
for 80 per cent of all deaths. A specific study is conducted of the synoptic and weather situations
during days when thunderstorms developed and resulted in deaths amongst people undertaking
leisure walking activities. Overall, this paper highlights the factors that should help to lessen the risk
of being killed by lightning in the future.
Keywords: Lightning deaths, lightning fatality rates, lightning risk, lightning safety, UK/USA
comparison
LIGHTNING DEATHS IN THE UK:
A 30-YEAR ANALYSIS OF THE FACTORS
CONTRIBUTING TO PEOPLE BEING
STRUCK AND KILLED
BY DEREK M. ELSOM1, 2
AND JONATHAN D.C. WEBB1
1Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, Oxford
2Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Oxford Brookes University
dmelsom@brookes.ac.uk
jonathan.webb@torro.org.uk
9 © THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
INTRODUCTION
To better understand the factors contributing to people being killed by lightning in the
UK, this article analyses known lightning deaths for the past 30 years (1987-2016) using
official national statistics and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO)’s
National Lightning Incidents Database. It extends the findings of Elsom and Webb (2014)
who provided the first detailed analyses of both lightning deaths and injuries in the UK
using a recent 25-year period (1988-2012). The results in this paper are compared with
the USA for the same 30-year period.
DATA SOURCES
The annual number of lightning deaths is provided by the Office for National Statistics for
England and Wales (available from 1852 to the present), the Northern Ireland Statistics
and Research Agency (1964 to present) and the National Records of Scotland (1951 to
present). They are based on death certificates registered in the UK in which lightning
is the ‘underlying cause of death’ (Figure 1). Currently, such deaths are coded as X33
(‘victim of lightning’) in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), Tenth revision,
1990. Deaths caused indirectly by lightning, such as when someone is killed in a house
or factory by a fire started by lightning, are not included in these statistics. Annual reports
provide the number, gender and age range of those killed but not the date and detailed
circumstances in which someone died. ICD10 sub-codes X33.00 to XX33.99 are used by
the national statistics agencies to indicate broadly where the fatal incident occurred and
the general activity being undertaken at the time but the information is of limited use in
this study. For example, X33.09 refers to a ‘victim of lightning, home, during unspecified
activity’, X33.20 a ‘victim of lightning, school, other institution and public administrative
area, while engaged in sports activity’, X33.62 a ‘victim of lightning, industrial and
construction area, while working for income’, and X33.72 a ‘victim of lightning, farm, while
working for income’. Unfortunately, such codes omit key information needed to better
understand the circumstances which put a person at risk of being killed by lightning.
Information needed includes the type of sport or leisure activity being undertaken when
killed, such as whether they were hill walking, swimming in the sea, fishing or playing
golf. A significant number of people are killed when sheltering under a tree which is struck
by lightning but the official sub-codes do not provide this information. If killed inside a
building, the sub-code offers no insight as to whether it was a substantial building or a
small structure (hut, shed, park shelter). If killed indoors, the sub-codes do not state
whether the person was using a corded telephone or standing by a window or external
door. If killed on a farm, the agricultural activity such as either working outdoors or in a
barn remain unknown as does whether, say, they were driving a tractor or riding a horse.
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January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
Figure 1. Cloud-to-ground lightning poses a significant risk of injury or death, especially if a person
is outdoors. Lightning at Godalming, Surrey, on the night of 15 September 2016 (Copyright: Tim
Moxon, www.weatherstudios.com).
To expand the official fatality statistics, TORRO has been compiling details of UK
lightning deaths and injuries reported in news media reports and from other sources
(e.g. meteorological and medical journal articles; reports send in by TORRO members)
since 1993 (Elsom, 1994). This database has been subsequently and retrospectively
extended back to the nineteenth century (Elsom, 2015). Annual reports on personal-
injury lightning incidents are published in the International Journal of Meteorology (e.g.
Elsom and Webb, 2015a; Elsom et al., 2016). One key source for detailed information
on UK lightning fatalities has been from observers’ reports of the Thunderstorm Census
Organisation (TCO) established in 1924. This organisation was taken over by TORRO in
1982 (Elsom and Webb, 2015b) with annual thunderstorm reports being published in the
International Journal of Meteorology (e.g. Webb, 2015; Webb, 2016).
The TORRO dataset is cross-matched with the data published by the appropriate official
statistics agency using the latter’s entry of year of the lightning fatality, gender and
age. On occasions, the official entry may report a lightning fatality one calendar year
later than it actually happened because the Coroner’s Inquest on that person’s death
had been delayed until the following year. For example, the Northern Ireland Statistics
and Research Agency lists a male death, 25-29 years of age, in 2007. However, the
TORRO dataset has no known lightning fatalities in Northern Ireland in 2007. Instead
the agency’s entry actually refers to the death of a 29-year-old off-duty soldier which
took place near a stone hut on the top of Slieve Donard, County Down, the highest
mountain (850 m) in Northern Ireland and part of the Mourne Mountains, on Saturday
8 April 2006 but the Coroner’s Inquest was not held until May 2007. Lucas (2009) also
confirms this 2006 fatality was the only known lightning death in Northern Ireland during
the period from 1982-2003. The National Office for Statistics in England and Wales lists
an entry for the death of a 20-24 year-old man in 2007. This corresponds to the TORRO
entry for a lightning death of a 24-year-old man at Warwick on Saturday 22 July 2006.
He was struck as he was leaving a Folk Festival, and crossing Castle Bridge, and died
six days later in hospital when his life support was turned off because of severe brain
damage. The Coroner’s Inquest was not held until January 2007 which explains the
belated official entry for this lightning death. In four cases, the TORRO dataset lists a
known lightning fatality which is not included in the official statistics. However, TORRO’s
detailed information makes it evident that a fatality in which lightning was the underlying
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
0
Year
11 © THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
cause did happen in England in 1989, 2006 and 2012, and in Scotland in 1998. For four
official national agency entries for England and Wales (two in 1999; one in 2006 and
2013), TORRO does not, as yet, have information but it continues to search for these
details. The combined database for lightning deaths in the UK is presented in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Annual number of deaths caused by lightning in the UK in the past 30 years (1987-2016).
ANNUAL NUMBER OF LIGHTNING DEATHS
In the past 30 years, 58 people have been killed by lightning in the UK, that is, on
average two people per year. Figure 2 highlights the annual variation during this period
and it is evident that, for example, the early half of the period experienced more years
with three or more deaths than the latter half of the period when there were even seven
years recording zero deaths (2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2016). The general
reduction in the annual number of deaths within this 30-year period reflects a continuation
of a long-term downward trend since the mid-nineteenth century as highlighted by Elsom
(2015). For example, during the corresponding 30-year period a century ago (1887-
1916) there were 553 lightning deaths with an average of 18 deaths per year, much
higher than the modern period (Table 1).
Number
of
deaths
Table 1. Total number and average annual number of UK lightning deaths in 30-year periods: 1987-
2016 and 1887-1916.
30-year
period
Annual
average
Highest year
Lowest year
% male
1987-2016
2
6 (1999)
0 (several
years since
2000)
83%
1887-1916
18
48 (1895)
8 (1902,1906,
1909)
87%
Note: The number of lightning deaths for the 1887-1916 period above are based on official statistics for England
and Wales and from TORRO records for Northern Ireland and Scotland. Official national records for Northern
Ireland and Scotland were not compiled for those years. However, TORRO’s on-going search for lightning deaths
reported in national, regional and local newspapers for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggests 30 deaths
(and possibly more) occurred in Scotland and Northern Ireland during 1887-1916. This produces a UK total of 553
(523 + 30) deaths and an average of 18.4 deaths per year.
RISK OF BEING KILLED BY LIGHTNING
Lightning has been the underlying cause of death in the UK of 58 people in the past 30
years (1987-2016) or, on average statistically, 1.9 deaths per year. The UK population
during that time increased from 56.8 million in 1987 to 65.5 million (provisional estimate)
in 2016 and averaged 60.1 million over that period. This indicates the risk of being
killed by lightning in any one year is 1.9/60.1 million, that is, 0.03 deaths per million
population per year (M-1yr-1) or simply one death for every 33 million people (Table 2). For
comparison, a century ago, the comparable 30-year period (1887-1916) experienced an
average of 18.4 deaths amongst an average UK population of 38.3 million. This indicates
the risk of being killed by lightning in any one year a century ago was 18.4/38.3 million or
approximately 0.5 M-1yr-1, that is, one death in around 2 million people (Table 2).
Table 2. Risk of lightning death in recent and historical 30-year periods in the UK.
30-year
period
Annual
average
deaths
Average
annual
population
Average number of
deaths per million per
year (M-1yr-1)
Risk of one death per
X million
(rounded to a million)
1987-2016
1.9
60.1 million
0.03
1 in 33 million
1887-1916
18.4
38.3 million
0.48
1 in 2 million
Note: Refer to the note about annual average lightning deaths below table 1. Also, for the 1887-1916 period,
census data gives an average population total of 32.6 million for England and Wales. Average population totals
for Northern Ireland and Scotland are estimated at 1.2 million and 4.5 million respectively.
Table 3 presents the UK lightning risk for the most recent ten-year period (2007-2016)
of one in 71 million compared with the comparable period a century ago (1907-1916) of
one in 2 million. The current annual lightning fatality risk, whether based on the recent
30-year or 10-year period, represents a considerable lessening of the lightning risk
compared with a century ago as also shown by Elsom (2015) (Figure 3).
13
Table 3. Risk of lightning death in recent and historical 10-year periods in the UK.
10-year
period
Annual
average
deaths
Average
annual
population
Average number of
deaths per million
per year (M-1yr-1)
Risk of one death per
X million (rounded to a
million)
2007-2016
0.9
63.5 million
0.014
1 in 71 million
1907-1916
17.8
41.4 million
0.5 (0.47)
1 in 2 million
Note: The annual average number of UK lightning deaths and population was obtained following similar
assumptions to those explained in the notes below Tables 1 and 2.
Figure 3. Lightning has caused fewer annual deaths since 2000 than in any similar length of period
since the nineteenth century. Lightning at Godalming, Surrey, on the night of 15 September 2016
(Copyright: Tim Moxon, www.weatherstudios.com)
14
The risk of being killed or injured by lightning is much greater as many more people
are injured than die. Elsom and Webb (2014) found the average ratio of the annual
number of injuries to deaths in the UK was 14:1 for a recent 25-year study period. A lower
ratio of 10:1 was suggested for the USA and some other countries (Holle, 2008). The
lower ratio found for these countries probably arises because those analyses included
fewer numbers of people who experienced minor, non-burn injuries and who were
not treated medically. In contrast, the TORRO National Lightning Incidents Database
includes minor injury incidents such as when a person reported, say, being thrown to the
ground, suffering temporary paralysis or weakness in one or more limbs, or experiencing
a tingling electrical effect as a result of a nearby lightning strike but they did not refer
themselves for medical treatment. Using both ratios (10:1 and 14:1) suggests the UK
risk of being struck by lightning and experiencing an injury or death for the most recent
10-year period (2007-2016) is 0.9 deaths + 9.0 injuries/63.5 million or 0.9 deaths + 12.6
injuries/63.5 million, that is, an average risk of between 0.16 to 0.21 per M-1yr-1 or, more
simply, around one person in every 5 to 6 million people.
COMPARING THE ANNUAL NUMBER OF LIGHTNING DEATHS AND LIGHTNING
RISK IN THE USA WITH THE UK
Not surprisingly, the number of lightning deaths in the USA is much higher than the UK
because it includes areas with considerably higher thunderstorm activity and lightning
flash densities (Christian et al., 2003; King, 2003) and a population that is five times that
of the UK. The number of lightning deaths has fallen during the past 30 years from 60-80
deaths in the earlier years to 20-40 deaths in the latter years (Figure 4). The average
number of annual fatalities was 46.8 deaths in the 30-year period 1987-2016. The mid-
year population rose from 242 million in 1987 to 323 million by 2016. Consequently, the
annual average risk of being killed by lightning in the USA during that period was 46.8
deaths/284.3 million, that is, 0.165 M-1yr-1 or one in 6 million people. Using only the past
ten years (2007-2016) the annual average risk of being killed by lightning in the USA
was 30.4 deaths/311.9 million, that is, 0.098 M-1yr-1 or one in 10 million. In other words,
comparing the USA results with those summarised in Tables 2 and 3 for the UK, the
chances of being killed by lightning in the USA in recent years is significantly greater
than in the UK. However, both the UK and USA currently experience relatively low fatality
rates. Low fatality rates are also experienced in Australia, Canada, Japan and throughout
Western Europe (Cooper et al., 2016; Holle, 2008, 2016). The most unfavourable (worst)
rates are found in countries in Africa and South America where national fatality rates per
million people per year exceed 0.6 M-1yr-1 (one in 1.7 million) and, in a few cases, may
even exceed 5.0 M-1yr-1 (one in 200,000 people)
100
90
80
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0
Year
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Figure 4. Annual number of lightning deaths in the USA in the past 30 years (1987-2016). A linear
trend line has been added.
Note: Data from National Weather Service http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/fatalities.shtml
FACTORS INFLUENCING AN INDIVIDUAL’S RISK OF BEING KILLED BY LIGHTNING
Although the current risk of being killed by lightning In the UK is relatively low compared
with other weather-related causes of death (e.g. exposure to excessive natural cold or
heat), there are several factors which determine whether individuals are at greater or
lesser risk than the national average risk of being killed by lightning:
1. Home country. England experiences a much higher incidence of thunderstorms and
lightning flash densities than Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (refer to Figure 1 in
Elsom, 2015, and Figure 2 in Webb, 2015 and Webb, 2016). Therefore, not surprisingly,
most of the deaths in the UK during the past 30 years occurred in England (81 per cent,
that is, 44 out of the 54 deaths with known locations) and few elsewhere: Northern
Ireland (1 death), Scotland (6) and Wales (3). The four deaths for which the location
is unknown refers to those listed by the National Office for Standards as ‘England and
Wales’.
2. Activity being undertaken when lightning threatens. Activities being undertaken
at higher elevations (hills, mountains, moors, cliffs) will likely increase the risk of
being struck compared with activities undertaken at lower elevations. Activities being
undertaken in wide-open spaces (farm and sports fields, open water, beaches), where
a person may be the highest point around, are at greater risk than those undertaken in
relatively enclosed areas such as in towns and cities. In urban areas, there are many
Number
of
deaths
16
high buildings, street light poles and television aerials which are more likely to be struck
by lightning than someone in a street or garden.
3. Actions taken or not taken when lightning threatens. Getting to a safe shelter
when lightning threatens may save a person’s life although, too often, those killed or
injured may have either failed to do so or did not do so quickly enough. Being on a hill
or mountain when lightning threatens means someone is a very long way from a safe
shelter (substantial building or metal-topped, enclosed vehicle). In contrast, being in
an urban area means there are many nearby substantial buildings in which to shelter.
Unfortunately, some people wait too long before seeking safety and are struck a short
distance away from safety. Contributing to a slow response to the lightning threat may be
background noise (urban noise; blustery winds; heavy rain) which limits an individual’s
ability to hear thunder. Nearby hills, trees or buildings may block a person’s view of a
developing thunderstorm. Some people do take prompt action when lightning threatens
but that action is wrong and potentially fatal such as when seeking shelter under a tree
or in a hut, shed, outhouse or unfinished building which lack adequate electrical earthing
if lightning strikes this type of building (Figure 5).
Figure 5. A person’s decision to discontinue an activity when lightning threatens is often left too
late and a safe shelter (substantial, electrically-earthed building or a metal-topped enclosed motor
vehicle) cannot be reached in time. Lightning at Godalming, Surrey, on the night of 15 September
2016 (Copyright: Tim Moxon, www.weatherstudios.com).
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4. Whether resuscitation is attempted. The most common cause of death due to
lightning is cardiopulmonary arrest. Indeed, someone is highly unlikely to die unless
cardiopulmonary arrest is sustained (Cooper et al., 2016). Prompt cardiopulmonary
resuscitation (CPR) may prevent this from happening. Prior to the 1960s, few bystanders
knew how to administer CPR. Also the time taken for paramedics to arrive with a
defibrillator and other advanced cardiac life support was too long, especially if the
incident happened in a remote area. TORRO’s records reveal that, during the past 30
years, 20 lightning casualties are known to have been resuscitated and, together with
follow-up hospital treatment, survived. A century ago these people would have very likely
died.
5. Gender? Gender is not an underlying reason for increasing or decreasing the risk of
being killed. Instead it is the type of activity being undertaken when lightning threatens
in an area that is more important. More men than women tend to participate in activities
considered high-risk of being struck by lightning. In a specific area, high elevations
tend to be struck more by lightning than lower elevations so participating in hill and
mountain walking, camping, climbing, fell running and mountain biking is a serious risk if
thunderstorms develop. More men than women participate in these activities. Wide, open
areas at lower elevations such as golf courses and sports fields (pitches), mean that a
participant is the highest point in the vicinity to which the stepped leader of lightning can
attach, and there is a higher proportion of men than women participating in these types
of sports. The gender distribution of female/male participants in many sports is changing
so a significantly higher female percentage of lightning deaths may occur in the future.
TYPES OF ACTIVITIES BEING UNDERTAKEN AT THE TIME OF DEATH
Of the 58 lightning deaths in the past 30 years, the activity being undertaken by the
deceased at the time they were struck was known for 54 people. This sample of lightning
deaths provides a vital insight into the range of activities being undertaken by people
when they were struck and killed by lightning in the past few decades. Percentages are
employed in this analysis for convenience but, where appropriate, absolute numbers are
stated too.
Three broad groups of activities can be identified, as employed by Elsom (2015) for
the UK and Jensenius (2016) for the USA. These are: ‘work’ (indoors and outdoors),
‘involved in the daily routine (indoors and outdoors), including travelling to and from
home to work or school’ and ‘participating in leisure, recreation and sports activities’. The
activity being undertaken when killed refers to the activity which placed that person at
risk. When struck by lightning while ‘walking the dog’, this could be categorised as being
involved in the daily routine or a leisure activity. A distinction is made in this analysis by
categorising this activity as ‘daily routine’ if it is undertaken near the home, that is, in the
local area (in nearby streets, a park or common) but as a leisure activity if undertaken
at more distant locations such as on hills, cliffs, moors and cliff-tops. Four deaths, two in
each category, were of people who were killed while walking their dog. When exploring
fatalities within each of the three broad categories, the activity which placed them at
risk also determines the sub-category group. For example, if a person had been playing
football or fishing but was struck by lightning as they ran for shelter, the fatality was
placed in the sub-category of ‘participating in the sport of football or fishing’ respectively.
18
As Figure 6 highlights, ‘work’ activities accounted for 15 per cent (8 deaths) of all known
deaths, undertaking ‘daily routine (daily life)’ 13 per cent (7 deaths) and participating in
‘leisure, recreation and sports activities’ 72 per cent (39 deaths). In absolute terms, the
8 deaths ‘at work’ were in agriculture (4), construction (2), fish farming (1) and military/
armed forces (1). Apart from one death in April 2012 near Crewe, Cheshire, of a 41-year-
old bricklayer struck outside on a building site while standing and drinking tea, the other
‘work’ deaths took place in 1996 or earlier. This may suggest a growing awareness
over time of the threat of lightning whilst at work. The seven deaths in the ‘daily routine’
category all occurred when the victims were walking to or from home to a school, work
or the shops or were walking the dog in the local area.
Figure 6. Lightning fatalities by activity in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
The 39 fatalities in the ‘leisure, recreation and sports activities’ category occurred while
walking for leisure (20), fishing (4), playing golf (4), playing cricket (3), playing football
(3) playing rugby (1), undertaking a water-related activity (kayaking) (1), children playing
(1), holidaying in a caravan park (1), and flying a model aircraft on a disused airfield
(1). More than half of those killed while engaged in a sports activity (9 out of 16) were
continuing their activity when struck while the others were either seeking shelter or had
reached shelter. Unfortunately, amongst the latter group, the shelter chosen was often
a bad choice, being a tree which was subsequently struck and they were killed when
the lightning passed down the tree trunk and side flashed (splashed) to the individual(s)
sheltering from the heavy rain beneath.
For example, on 27 June 2009 at Small Heath Park, Birmingham, West Midlands, a
group of teenagers had their cricket match interrupted by a thunderstorm. They sought
shelter from the heavy rain under a nearby tree which was then struck. Five boys suffered
minor injuries, one suffering convulsions, and a 16-year-old suffered serious burns and
cardiac arrest but was resuscitated. Unfortunately, he died in hospital three days later.
In the past 10-15 years, many golf courses have begun providing a warning when
thunderstorms develop (sounding of a klaxon) to tell players to discontinue playing
Work
15%
Leisure,
recreation
and sports
72%
Daily life
13%
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January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
immediately and head for the Clubhouse. Unfortunately, no klaxon was sounded at a
Newbury golf course on 28 June 2005 as the manager had left and even though two
golfers had decided to stop play and seek the safety of the Clubhouse, they were struck
on their way and one was killed.
Twelve of the 20 leisure walking fatalities occurred on hills, mountains or cliff tops all
were men. This highlights that walking at exposed, high elevation locations, often distant
from safe refuges, contributed to one fifth (22 per cent) of all UK deaths in the past
three decades for which the activity being undertaken by the deceased at the time they
were struck was known (54 deaths). It is clearly important for those engaged in this
activity to be aware of the lightning safety guidance outlined previously by Elsom et al.
(2016) for hill and mountain walkers. Hill walkers need to pay particular attention to
weather forecasts and postpone the activity if thunderstorms are forecast.
Unfortunately, some people lead busy lives and are very reluctant to alter their plans
and so put themselves, friends and family at risk of being struck by lightning.
NOTES ON DAYS WITH FATALITIES ASSOCIATED WITH LEISURE ACTIVITIES
Regarding awareness of the lightning risk, an investigation has been made of the
synoptic and weather situation on days when thunderstorms developed and lightning
resulted in deaths amongst people undertaking leisure walking activities, specifically
when they were walking on hills, mountains and cliff tops and walking at lower
elevations including parks, a canal bank and on the side of a Scottish loch. During the
30 year period there were 19 days in which people engaged in these activities died as
a result of injuries directly related to lightning.
Lamb’s Classification of weather types (Climate Research Unit, University of East
Anglia) is a convenient way of expressing the airflow direction of the overall isobaric
pattern - over the British Isles based on the grid 50°N to 60°N and 10°W to 2°E. A variety
of weather types occurred on days when fatal lightning incidents occurred. Southerly
or southeasterly types were noted for five of the days; eight occasions were classified
as Cyclonic (including one day each of the CSE, CNW and CW type); five days were
Anticyclonic; and one day was Northerly. A more relevant classification for the current
analysis is to consider the synoptic situation and airflow around the time (and location)
of each of the fatality incidents. Four synoptic and airflow scenarios were identified
(Figure 7). Only four of the days occurred in the classic or modified Spanish Plume
situation (Lewis and Gray 2010; Met Office, 2017), the major scenario for widespread
severe thunderstorms (scenario 1). Three other fatal lightning incident days involved
warm, rather stagnant air in slack weather situations (Cols or shallow depressions)
where thunderstorms are especially favoured along convergence zones like sea breezes
(scenario 2). The remaining 12 days featured air masses of polar maritime origin, albeit
sometimes with a long ‘fetch’. Six of these were in showery situations in cyclonic westerly
or northwesterly set-ups with one occasion being in winter (scenario 3), and six were
linked to returning maritime polar air with a cyclonic curvature, arriving from between
southeast and southwest (scenario 4). Scenario 4 was present on the two occasions with
deaths from more than one incident: 1 May 1988 (three separate incidents resulted in
the deaths of three walkers, two in Cumbria and one in Shropshire) and 5 July 2015 (two
incidents resulted in the ‘simultaneous’ deaths of two hill walkers on peaks 1.7 km apart
on the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, as explored by Elsom et al., 2016).
20 © THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
Figure 7. The synoptic and airflow situations on days when people participating in leisure walking
were struck and killed by lightning in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
Scenario 1. Classic or modified
Spanish Plume situations.
Scenario 2. Warm, rather stagnant air in slack weather
situations (COLS or shallow depressions).
Scenario 3. Showery situations in
cyclonic westerly or northwesterly
set-ups
Scenario 4. Returning maritime polar air with a cyclonic
curvature, arriving from between southeast and
southwest.
During the ‘warm season’, days with polar maritime air often start with sunny, relatively
cool, fresh mornings; visibility is excellent and the prospect is initially inviting for leisure
walkers, including those interested in weather photography. Moreover, forecasts will
probably not give the risk of thunder such a high profile as on days of the ‘warm plume’
scenario; a typical forecast might be “showers developing, some heavy with a chance
of hail and thunder”. The initial thundery showers may have just occasional discharges
which means a possible warning of thunder rumbling in the distance may be absent.
INDOOR DEATHS?
Although people have been injured by lightning indoors in the past 30 years in substantial,
electrically earthed buildings, there have been no deaths (Elsom and Webb, 2014). This
contrasts markedly with a century ago when, for example, in the decade of the 1900s
(1900-1909), 24 per cent of all deaths occurred indoors (Elsom, 2015). The reason why
people were vulnerable when lightning struck a substantial buildings in the 1900s and
in earlier periods was because these buildings lacked the electricity, telephone and
plumbing circuits that today provide routes to conduct the electric current of the lightning
from the point of contact to the ground. Consequently, in modern buildings the current
passes around or within the structural frame of a building and through its walls before
eventually earthing in the ground. Unless a person is in contact with or close to these
circuits they are unlikely to experience a fatal current. The walls may be damaged as
Scenario 1:
Scenario 4: 4 days
6 days
Scenario 2:
3 days
Scenario 3:
6 days
© THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY 21
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
cables are heated virtually instantaneously to very high temperatures resulting in burning
and explosive damage. Surge protectors fitted to electrical appliances and computers
minimise the electrical current to which a user may be exposed. Lightning injuries
continue to happen indoors but no deaths inside well-grounded, substantial buildings
are known for the past five or six decades in the UK. Unfortunately, small structures such
as huts, sheds and park shelters are not usually well-grounded electrically so fatalities
may continue to happen inside them (Elsom, 2015).
COMPARISON WITH THE USA
There were 313 people killed by lightning in the USA for a recent ten-year period (2006-
2015). Detailed information was known for 297 deaths (95 per cent). Jensenius (2016)
analysed these 297 deaths and found that work-related activities accounted for 16
per cent of the deaths (47 out of 297), the daily or weekly routine for 16 per cent (49
out of 297), and leisure and sports activities for 68 per cent (201 out of 297). These
percentages, presented in Figure 8, are broadly similar to the UK findings in this paper
(Figure 6) which are based on a much smaller number of deaths for the past 30 years.
Figure 8. Lightning fatalities by activity in the past 10 years (2006-2015) in the USA.
GENDER OF FATALITIES
Figure 9 highlights that males accounted for 83% of all lightning deaths in the UK in the
past 30 years. This is similar to the USA situation as Jensenius (2016) found that males
accounted for 79 per cent of all the lightning fatalities in the ten-year period (2006-2015).
Gender percentages have not changed significantly in the UK during the past century or
so. For example, during the corresponding 30-year period a century ago (1887-1916),
males accounted for 87 per cent per cent of all known lightning deaths (Table 1). The
high percentage of male deaths reflect the higher proportion of male participation in
outdoor work-related activities (construction, farming, military) and specific outdoor
leisure activities (hill and mountain walking) and sports activities (cricket, fishing, football
and rugby). The ten female lightning deaths occurred in all three of the broad categories
of activities but half were killed while ‘walking for leisure’ in their local area (in the ‘Daily
Work
16%
Leisure,
recreation
and sports
68%
Daily life
16%
22 © THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
life’ broad activity category) on a weekday and none at more remote and high elevation
locations (hills, mountains, moors or cliff-tops) where twelve men lost their lives, with
eight of the twelve deaths taking place on a Sunday.
Jensenius (2016) raises the question as to whether there are behavioural differences
between men and women regarding attitude to the lightning risk and whether this, and not
simply the types of lightning-vulnerable activities that more men than women undertake,
contributes to the higher male percentage of lightning deaths. Possible behavioural
differences suggested include men being less aware of the lightning risk, being less
willing to be inconvenienced by the threat of lightning (by postponing a planned activity)
and being more likely to ignore the risk until the threat is so imminent that there is little
time left to seek safe shelter. An unwillingness to wait at least 30 minutes after the last
lightning or thunder before leaving a safe shelter to return outdoors may be another
possibility. This issue requires further research.
Figure 9. Gender of lightning fatalities in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
TEMPORAL VARIATION OF LIGHTNING DEATHS
Not surprisingly, given the seasonal distribution of thunderstorms, it is the spring and
summer that accounted for 87 per cent of all lightning fatalities (Figure 10). More
specifically, the four months of May (13 deaths), June (8 deaths), July (9 deaths) and
August (13 deaths) were responsible for 80% of all lightning deaths. These are also
the months when people spend more time outdoors and participate in outdoor leisure,
recreation and sports activities. May is commonly the month when the first major
thunderstorms of the year occur in the UK. Many people will be spending time outdoors
in May enjoying the spring warmth, perhaps the first warm period of the year since
winter, and may not realise that thunderstorms can develop rapidly on such days and
pose a lightning risk.
Female
17%
Male 83%
© THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY 23
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
Figure 10. Lightning fatalities by season in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
Most lightning deaths occurred during the late afternoon or early evening, a time when
thunderstorms are more frequent and more people are outdoors. Fewer people are killed
during thunderstorms at night as most people are indoors and relatively safe from a
lightning strike compared to being outdoors (Figure 11). Unfortunately, a 22-year-old
man who stepped outside his holiday caravan at 0130 UTC during a thunderstorm at
Billing, Northamptonshire, on 8 August 1992, was struck by lightning and killed.
Figure 11. Fewer people are killed at night by lightning as most people are indoors and relatively
safe from a lightning strike compared to those outdoors. Nighttime lightning on 4 July 2015 Bury St
Edmunds, Suffolk (copyright: Andrew Scott).
Winter
2%
Autumn
11% Spring
31%
Summer
56%
24 © THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
Although lightning deaths occurred on all days of the week, Sundays gave rise to one
quarter of all known deaths (26 per cent or 14 out of 54 deaths for which the day is
known) as shown in Figure 12. This reflects that Sunday is a day when larger numbers
of people have the time to participate in leisure and recreation activities which may put
themselves at risk, such as hill walking. All the male and female deaths in the ‘work’
activity category occurred on weekdays. All female deaths happened on weekdays.
Figure 12. Lightning fatalities by day-of-the-week in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
AGE OF LIGHTNING FATALITIES
The youngest death was a two-year-old girl on 7 September 1994 who was with her
mother while she was picking potatoes in a wide open field near Faversham, Kent,
when they were both struck by lightning. Her mother was only slightly injured. The oldest
person killed was a 75-year-old retired miner who was struck by lightning whilst walking
near his home on a footpath in Ammanford, Dyfed, Wales, on 24 May 1989. The highest
number of deaths occurred amongst the 20-29 year-age-range (Figure 13). Their deaths
were associated with participating in sports activities (cricket, football, golf, fishing),
undertaking leisure and recreation activities (walking) and working (farmer, fish-farm
worker, house repairer). A larger sample size would be needed to explore age-range
differences more fully.
Sunday
26%
Monday
11%
Tuesday
9%
Wednesday
18%
Saturday
13%
Friday
17%
Thursday
6%
18
16
14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0
Age range
© THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF METEOROLOGY 25
January/February 2017 Vol. 42, No. 401
Figure 13. Lightning fatalities by age group in the past 30 years (1987-2016) in the UK.
CONCLUSION
The details about lightning deaths in the past 30 years provide an important insight
into the risk that lightning poses to people in the UK. Participating in the broad group
of ‘leisure, recreation and sports activities’ poses the greatest risk. Leisu re walking on
hills, mountains and cliff-tops (12 deaths) together with participating in outdoor sports
activities, especially cricket, fishing, football, golf, rugby and watersports (16 deaths)
gave rise to around half (52 per cent or 28 of 54 deaths for which activities were known)
of all UK deaths in the past three decades. Ensuring all people understand that lightning
in their vicinity will always pose a dangerous risk (unless they are indoors in a substantial
electrically-grounded building or in a metal-topped enclosed motor vehicle) will be vital
if fatalities are to be avoided in the future. Particular efforts need to be directed toward
hill and mountain walkers and outdoor sports participants to ensure they reschedule or
promptly curtail their activity when thunderstorms are forecast or develop respectively
(Elsom et al., 2016). Moreover, the decision to discontinue an activity when lightning
threatens needs to be taken with sufficient time to reach a safe shelter.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The authors would like to thank the staff at the national statistics agencies who provided
some additional information regarding lightning deaths in the UK and clarified some
issues relating to the reporting of their data. Also thanks to the many people who
have provided the authors and TORRO with details of recent and historical lightning
UK incidents. This has helped greatly to support the authors’ continuing research into
lightning impacts and risks to people in the UK.
Number of deaths
26
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Mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) are relatively rare events in the UK but, when they do occur, can be associated with weather that is considered extreme with respect to climatology (as indicated by the number of such events that have been analysed as case studies). These case studies usually associate UK MCSs with a synoptic environment known as the Spanish plume. Here a previously published 17 year climatology of UK MCS events is extended to the present day (from 1998 to 2008) and these events classified according to the synoptic environment in which they form. Three distinct synoptic environments have been identified, here termed the classical Spanish plume, modified Spanish plume, and European easterly plume. Detailed case studies of the two latter, newly defined, environments are presented. Composites produced for each environment further reveal the differences between them. The classical Spanish plume is associated with an eastward propagating baroclinic cyclone that evolves according to idealised life cycle 1. Conditional instability is released from a warm moist plume of air advected northeastwards from Iberia that is capped by warmer, but very dry air, from the Spanish plateau. The modified Spanish plume is associated with a slowly moving mature frontal system associated with a forward tilting trough (and possibly cut-off low) at 500 hPa that evolves according to idealised life cycle 2. As in the classical Spanish plume, conditional instability is released from a warm plume of air advected northwards from Iberia. The less frequent European easterly plume is associated with an omega block centred over Scandinavia at upper levels. Conditional instability is released from a warm plume of air advected westwards across northern continental Europe. Unlike the Spanish plume environments, the European easterly plume is not a warm sector phenomena associated with a baroclinic cyclone. However, in all environments the organisation of convection is associated with the interaction of an upper-level disturbance with a low-level region of warm advection.
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A review of autopsy reports in cases of electrocution in Northern Ireland revealed that there were 50 accidental electrocutions and 9 suicidal electrocutions over a 22 year period (1982 - 2003). No cases of homicidal electrocution were detected in this jurisdiction. Analysis of the cohort of accidental electrocutions showed that there was a clear skew towards young and middle-aged male adults with deaths occurring more frequently in the summer months. Almost 60% of individuals were engaged in occupational tasks when they were accidentally electrocuted. High and low voltage-related deaths occurred with similar frequency and electrical appliances were found to be responsible for approximately one third of accidental electrocutions. The potential hazards of electricity must continue to be stressed in public safety campaigns if these relatively uncommon but tragic deaths are to be prevented.
Lightning-related injuries and safety
  • M A Andrews
  • Holle R L Blumenthal
COOPER, M.A, ANDREWS, C.J, HOLLE R.L., BLUMENTHAL, R. and ALDANA, N.N. (2016) Lightning-related injuries and safety, In Auerbach, P.S., Cushing T.A. and Harris, N.S. (ed.)
Thunderstorm Division report for Britain and Ireland 2014 (also incorporating the TCO annual survey)
  • J D C Webb
WEBB, J.D.C. (2015) Thunderstorm Division report for Britain and Ireland 2014 (also incorporating the TCO annual survey), Int. J. Meteorology, 40, 125-133.