The National Weather Service has a catchy slogan to remind you what to do during a thunderstorm: “When thunder roars…go indoors.”
It’s sensible advice. But what if you have to be outside during a thunderstorm? What if, for example, you’re a parent to a kindergartener who is supposed to meet your child at the end of your driveway sometime in the next few minutes? And your house is set far back enough from the road that you think the driver might not see you huddling under your porch? Should you wait inside and sprint out when you glimpse the bus, risking the possibility of falling in the small lakes forming in your driveway? Should you wait at the bottom of the driveway with an umbrella, to ensure the driver sees you? Should you ditch the umbrella and get soaked? Drive to the bottom of the driveway and wait in safety in your car?
These are the kinds of questions you have time to consider when the bus is late and you are pathologically early.
The worst-case scenario (apart, of course, from getting struck by lightning) would be missing the bus, after which you’d have to drive to the school in your athleisure to pick up your stranded child. So you start googling to see how likely it is to be struck by lightning. What exactly is the risk? Does your height dramatically increase or reduce your chances? Also, you’re not supposed to be the tallest thing around, but you’re also not supposed to go under a tree. What’s the optimal space between the tree you’re supposed to be avoiding and the open space you’re supposed to avoid being the tallest thing in?
What are the chances?
Based on National Weather Service from 2009-2018, an individual’s odds of being struck by lightning in any given year is 1-in-1,222,000. An individual’s lifetime risk is 1-in-15,300. A 1-in-15,300 chance of being struck by lightning can also be expressed as a 99.99% chance that you will NOT be struck by lightning. Those are pretty good odds.
You should also feel good about the fact that U.S. deaths from lightning strikes are decreasing, a change that has been attributed to better education about lightning, more advanced weather detection and warning systems, and the fact that all of us are sitting inside using our devices instead of exploring the outdoors. See, screen time is good for your health!
Who gets struck by lightning?
But if you’re still waiting for the bus and picturing the driver pulling up to find you face down on your driveway next to your umbrella, clothes smoking, you might not be comforted by the stats on lightning strikes. What if you’re the special one represented by that .01%?
It may help you to know that even that .01% risk might be an overestimate. Many of the risk calculations you’ll see in the news are pretty simple math that uses a few main numbers: 1) the total population of a place (like Cleveland or the United States or the Earth) and 2) the average number of people affected each year. Take the population and divide it by the average people affected and you get a 1-in-x estimate.
The resulting predictions are good enough in many cases. In the cases of lightning strikes, its enough to tell you that it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to be hit by lightning. You’re probably not going to get hit by lightning while waiting for the bus stop on a street with buildings and utility poles and trees. Then again, you are outside, which in that moment makes you more likely to be struck by lightning than all of the people indoors.
But there’s good news! According to some estimates, you’re less likely to be struck by lightning if you’re a woman.
This chart has led to some unhelpful news articles suggesting that men are struck by lightning more often than women because they’re idiots who refuse to head indoors during bad weather. Men are outside more than women for lots of reasons, among them that they haven’t been conditioned to fear the world outside their door as much as women. Also, farm and fishing industries.
It’s not your gender that makes you more susceptible to lightning, it’s whether or not you are outside during a lightning storm.
When do they get struck by lightning?
One chart that initially seems more helpful is the NWS breakdown of the daily or weekly tasks lightning strike victims were engaged in when struck by lightning.
The NWS pie chart of weather fatalities for routine activities makes waiting for the bus stop pretty dangerous. 19% of lightning fatalities came while waiting for a vehicle, and the bus is a vehicle. But what if it’s also a Wednesday and you’re bringing up the trash cans while waiting for the bus and then walking back into your house? You’re covered by 45% of this pie chart, more if getting the mail counts as part of “other.”
The chart makes waiting for the bus stop look pretty scary…until you look at the bottom and see that those percentages are based on 42 cases over a seven year period, for 6 total fatalities per year. In the entire country.
Where do people get struck by lightning most often?
The world is a big place, some parts of it more prone to lightning than others. If you’re in Florida, for example, you might want to be a bit more wary, because it has a greater lightning density than other states. If your route to school requires passage over Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, there’s definitely cause for concern. If you really want to avoid lightning risk, consider moving to Antarctica, where there’s very little lightning. Not a lot of school choice there, though.