Skip to contents
Science

Is Lightning A Fraud? Sadly, Yes [Update]

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

There’s a fascinating little blog in the Washington Post this week about lightning, full of interesting little lightning factoids. For instance, did you know that Florida and Oklahoma are locked in a battle for the crown of lightning capital of America? Did you know that more than twice as many Americans were killed by lightning in 2018 as were killed by tornadoes? Did you know men are struck by lightning three to four times as often as women? Neat! Lightning rules. As far as nature’s raw toolkit for owning wayward and unlucky humans goes, lightning is right up there as the most bitchin’. A gigantic 40,000-foot column of dense cloud spins up into a fury and wanders across the globe, casting everything it passes over into darkness and violence. Its guts are a chaos of updrafts and downbursts and steering winds and condensation, all crackling with static electricity. Every once in a while, for reasons that are still largely mysterious, all this electrostatic energy equalizes with some invisible point on the ground, and WHAM!!! Instantaneous, blinding, complete and total hell is unleashed, so insanely hot and violent that the air around it explodes into a deafening sonic shockwave. If you’re on the receiving end of that stroke, buddy, you have really made it. To hell, that is.

Every time I’m in a thunderstorm I like to think about a pristine pre-human Earth, before any observer existed to study and categorize and distinguish between all of Earth’s various things that move and act and rage in perceptible ways. I like to imagine I am an alien visitor to this primitive planet, and while I am certainly charmed by deer and delighted by fireflies, nothing that moves and acts and consumes and dies on this strange blue planet can possibly contend, not for my attention nor in any other conceivable way, with the thunderstorm. It looms up over the horizon and crawls over the land, and everything else hunkers down, and among the few bold or deranged things that don’t, some number of them will be flashed immediately out of existence for their impertinence. You’ll know one of them ate it from a hundred miles away by the booming echo of his demise. You fool! But also, talk about going out with a bang! Now that’s dyin’!

Here’s where the “news” part of this Washington Post blog may inspire mixed emotions: Lightning, it turns out, smites fewer and fewer Americans every decade. The total number of lightning fatalities has dropped by something like 80 percent since the mid-20th century. There has yet to be a single lightning fatality anywhere in the United States in 2021, a new record for the latest date of the first strike death of the year. I don’t want to say that lightning has lost its fastball, but this is not generally a trend you’d associate with peak performance:

A long-term average of 41 people die from lightning strikes each year in the United States, but that number has been continuing to trend downward thanks in part to increased awareness, safety campaigns, and growing accessibility of weather forecasts and warnings. A 10-year average is closer to 20 people killed by lightning.

Washington Post

Homo sapiens has shared this planet with lightning for at least 300,000 years; simply do not tell me that “increased awareness” accounts for recent developments in this relationship. I’m sure these “safety campaigns” are clever and printed on glossy high-quality card stock, but I absolutely do not believe for one moment that even so stupid and smelly a creature as a chimpanzee, which after all is a primitive hominid of a lower order than the ascendant human, requires a public service announcement in order to internalize the idea that being struck by lightning is a negative outcome. What good would our whole suite of senses be if we needed a pamphlet to tell us that getting kerpowed by an annihilating bolt of hell-juice is something that one should consider carefully before undertaking. Awareness will not suffice as an excuse for lightning’s declining statistical production.

It’s true that Americans probably work outdoors less than they did 70 years ago, and spend more time watching television and doomscrolling on various internet devices, and less time surveying and foraging and so forth. I’m afraid this also will not fully satisfy as an explanation: As recently as 2017 lightning was barging right into people’s vacation homes and blasting them straight into the afterlife. Indoor lightning strikes sound rare, and are, but they’re not so rare that the Centers For Disease Control would skip past issuing a set of indoor safety tips on its page about lightning danger. The CDC makes perfectly plain that lightning can use plumbing, electrical outlets and wiring, metal bars in concrete floors or walls, and telephone cords to carry out its deadly mission, to say nothing of just blasting its way through an open bedroom window. Lightning has many tools at its disposal, but by sticking so rigidly to its bread-and-butter—the fool hiding under a tall tree in a field—its productivity is being undermined as much by sheer lack of ambition as by America’s general retreat from sunlight.

You hate to think of lightning as a slacker, or worse, that lightning may finally be on the downslope of a long and illustrious career. Diarrhea, ever the grinder, kills hundreds of thousands of people across the globe every year and seeks no headlines, unlike me-first lightning. You would certainly never see a Washington Post article noting the date of the first toilet death of the year. Plenty of humble, workmanlike causes of death simply go about their business, or even expand their business, without nearly the fanfare. Lightning earned its prominence and reputation with a spectacular track record spanning quite literally the entirety of humanity’s time on Earth, but this ongoing, months-long O-fer leaves no choice but to conclude that it simply lacks the juice to compete in our modern era. Sad.

UPDATE: Did lightning know this blog was coming? Did lightning read the WaPo article and bristle and get back to business? It appears so: