Even if a few more deaths are reported in the next three months, the overall toll will still be below what we usually see, says John Jensenius, a meteorologist and lightning safety specialist with the National Lightning Safety Council.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re going to be below average,” Jensenius told CNN. “Whether it’ll be a record year or not, it’s hard to know right now.”
There’s been less lightning activity this year
So, why are there fewer deaths from lightning strikes this year?
Lightning counts were mostly average from January through April, but slowed significantly in May, June and July, when lightning activity tends to ramp up, data from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) showed.
“As an example of the decrease in lightning, June 2019 had only three days when the NLDN detected fewer than 1 million lightning events. June 2020 had 15 such days!”
That decrease in lightning activity has to do with a decrease in what’s called atmospheric instability, which is one of the conditions needed to form thunderstorms.
“As you think about what you need to create a thunderstorm, which then creates the lightning, you need moisture, instability and lift,” Vagasky told CNN. “Those are the three key ingredients.”
Vagasky said he and his colleagues found that the Great Plains and the Southeast, which usually see the most lightning strikes in a given year, had seen a “significant decrease” in atmospheric instability during peak lightning season. Additionally, those areas also saw regions of high pressure in the atmosphere that effectively suppressed the lift needed for thunderstorms to develop.
Still, 2020 hasn’t been without devastating lightning events.
“At the beginning of the year 11% of the US was in drought. Now 42.6% of the country is in drought,” said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. “This is another indication that the US has not had near the normal rainfall, and inevitably lightning, this year.”
The pandemic may mean fewer deaths are being reported
But Jensenius doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening here.
Instead, Jensenius said he’s concerned that this extremely busy news year could mean that we’re just not hearing about all the lightning fatalities that are happening.
“Much of the news has been concentrated on the pandemic and the election,” he said. “Typically we find out about [lightning strike fatalities] by monitoring news alerts. So if the stories aren’t making the web, as far as news stories, then we’re not likely to hear about them right away.”
How to stay safe
Though fewer lightning fatalities this year is welcome news, lightning still poses risks, Jensenius and Vagasky caution.
If the weather forecast predicts a high chance of thunderstorms, it’s best to stay indoors. If you hear thunder while outside, head inside immediately. And if for some reason you can’t make it to a safe location, stay away from open fields, tall objects and water.