For meteorologists, lightning is recognized as the thunderstorm hazard with perhaps a greater probability of death than any other. According to the National Weather Service Storm Data, from 1984 – 2013, the United States averaged 49 reported lightning fatalities per year. Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90% with various degrees of disability.
For the comparatively small number of people lightning directly affects compared to hurricanes and tornadoes, we can’t seem to get the deadly numbers down. This is not about low predictability, advancing science or improving technology. This is about risk perception and the simple fact that humans have a tendency to ignore small probabilities.
What brought us to this conversation here and now? Put simply, lightning, a weather communication researcher and Twitter.
Just recently here in Baton Rouge, I was at a summer pool party. No surprise in South Louisiana, afternoon rolled around and thunder rumbled. As the only meteorologist at the party (imagine that) everyone turned to me for the suggestion that it was time to get out of the pool, even though the skies overhead were still blue. We know that lightning can strike from up to ten miles away, so if you hear thunder it’s too close. Much like I say to television viewers and social media followers, this doesn’t mean the party had to stop—let’s grab some snacks and drinks until the thunder passes. Sounds easy enough, right? I thought so too! I even proudly tweeted an ‘everyman’s how to’—seemingly a victory for weather messaging!
Gah! But, of course, that was only half right. You want me to ask family and friends to go in the house during a pool party, while the sun is still out, what are you, nuts? I knew better than this, didn’t I? Don’t we all?
Rick Smith and I touched base soon after the exchange. And Rick was very clear; his tweet was not meant to be a ‘call out’—rather an acknowledgement or observation. I’d argue it as one that needs to become a discussion. Smith is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS office in Norman, Oklahoma. But he grew up in Mississippi.
“I would go swimming almost every day… most thunderstorms were preceded by sunshine. The first indication of a thunderstorm was the distant rumbling of thunder. Many people didn’t take action until it started raining. That is a more dramatic change in the weather,” said Smith.
John Jensenius is the National Weather Service’s lightning safety specialist. Regardless of statistics, Jensenius reminds that lightning occurs everywhere.
“Being safe from lightning can be an inconvenience, especially in areas of the country where lightning occurs frequently. To minimize that inconvenience, it is necessary to plan your day so that you take advantage of the storm-free times and plan to be in a safe place when thunderstorms are in the area,” said Jensenius. “In some parts of the country, that may mean getting your outdoor activities done in the morning or by early afternoon.”
As Smith and Jensenius point out, especially with lightning, it is usually more of a nuisance for people to try to protect themselves. Think of a boater, fisherman or golfer hearing thunder off in the distance while the sun is still shining overhead. These people could end the day early, pack up the gear and suspend a good round, or take the (approximately) one in a million chance. ‘If it’s my time, it’s my time.’ I’ve heard that one before, even at the pool party that inspired this piece, and I’ll bet you and I have even said it before. I’m a golfer, so I’ve played the hypocrite. Even Smith, just mowing the lawn, said he’s had the same thought. And we’re meteorologists.
“A close lightning strike that is a C.G. (cloud to ground strike), that looks dramatic, that is what created the oohs and ahhs. Or the outflow hits and you get a big gust of wind. It’s something that you can touch or feel to get you move,” said Smith.
Lightning strikes and lightning kills; the numbers don’t lie. Five people have lost their lives at the scorching hands of lightning so far in 2016. Perhaps most importantly, notice that most of these deaths came during normal, and what may be considered leisurely, activities. Jensenius said that approximately two-thirds of lightning deaths have happened in similar situations–like a pool party. This year, fatal strikes occurred in states that are annual leaders in lightning production. Two of those deaths were in my state, Louisiana, with another in Smith’s home state of Mississippi. There have also been two deadly strikes in Florida—an annual culprit for lightning fatalities and 2015’s leader with five.
“The Gulf States and especially Florida see more lightning then the rest of the country. However, when we look at fatalities per capita, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana are the top three states, mainly due to outdoor activities,” said Jensenius.
Lightning is well-known to be deadly. So, why are lives lost every year? The south is well-known as a lightning hot spot. So, why is the sheer volume of victims highest in those states? Perhaps there are underlying environmental circumstances that play into these statistics.
I grew up in Pennsylvania. Air mass thunderstorms are far less common there than in the Southeast U.S. Dark skies or thunder typically signaled that a front or squall line was approaching—heading inside was an easy decision. In the south, it is possible to hear thunder several times a day without seeing a drop of rain. This begs a “chicken or egg” type of question. Are more people struck in these states because the chances are inherently higher? Or is lightning disregarded in these states more often because lightning is so common and a relatively low probability hazard?
“We don’t know that yet… lightning data is hard to come by and under-reported. It’s a combination of things. The more frequently you are faced with a hazard the higher your chances are of being affected. People’s reactions are guided by experience. The more thunderstorms people experience… the probabilities appear to be in their favor at that point,” said Smith.
When forming a perception, we determine the significance of a risk with previous experience, personal needs and a variety of cues. For the same reason a parent might venture through a severe thunderstorm warning to get the kids from school, a golfer may move on to the next hole—because nothing bad happened last time. People have to perceive danger in order to change their situation. Various social cues and pre-existing factors will put some at an increased risk to particular hazards. A case and point would be South Louisiana, where lightning can be an everyday occurrence during the summer. In the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” outdoor livelihood carries on as thunder rumbles. Despite living in a geographic region that predisposes one to being a victim, very few even know somebody who has been struck by lightning. It is a low probability hazard. Lightning also doesn’t have much of a dread factor—which is not a made up term. Scholars attach a dread factor to hazards that appear catastrophic, are long in duration, threatening specifically to individuals and cannot be avoided via personal diligence. Hurricanes and tornadoes bring widespread and well publicized destruction. Damages from lightning are highly isolated and seldom seen.
“When we’re doing spotter training I tell people because that’s your most common threat, that is your biggest threat. I think it is seriously underrated. The chance of anyone knowing anyone personally having bad experiences with lightning is pretty low,” said Smith.
Smith’s message at spotter training is a slight tweak from the normal approach. What is the common National Weather Service mantra? Repeat after me class, ‘when thunder roars, go indoors.’ Repetitive messages in low probability hazards may be creating too much of a ‘crying wolf’ syndrome. As a result, risk perception people associated with lightning may continue to dull.
“If we just keep saying it over and over there is a segment of the population that is going to tune it out. I don’t know if it is effective. Having a unified message is important but I think having different ways to convey those messages are important,” said Smith.
Many weather folks can have their heads stuck in the clouds, pun intended, when it comes to these issues. There is not a textbook way to do everything. There is not a single most effective way to communicate risk. However, there is a common thread to successful messages—efficacy. From the medical field to meteorology, research has shown we react best when (we feel) a situation is under control. Can you turn a negative into a positive?
“The more it feels like you are talking to that person versus talking at them will improve the chances of a message being acted on,” said Smith.
Instead of, “when thunder roars, go indoors” how about, “hey, if a storm pops up near your pool party, take it inside for a few minutes just to be safe. Have a snack and a beer, catch up on the game and head back outside when you don’t hear thunder anymore.” But that doesn’t rhyme and is way too long to hashtag! Just an example—weather messages should be delivered just like you are talking to a family member or friend. I’ve never called a college buddy and robotically proclaimed “when thunder roars, go indoors” and neither have you. So why minimize our weather messages with such restrictive wording?
As Dr. Susan Jasko points out, the game has changed. Weather isn’t just science anymore. This is about understanding risk perception, effective communication and treating people like, well, people. But… we’re meteorologists!
 Joslyn, S., & Savelli, S. (2010). Communicating forecast uncertainty: Public perception of weather forecast uncertainty. Meteorological Applications, 17(2), 180–195.