SEATTLE — The likelihood of being killed by a lightning strike may have less to do with chance and more to do with socioeconomic status.
The connection between the two is seemingly coincidental, but the numbers reveal there is in fact a link between the two.
Earth’s poorest countries in Africa and Asia have the highest lightning mortality rates. For example, Malawi, a landlocked country directly north of South Africa, loses more than 1,300 of its citizens to lighting strikes annually. In 2014 alone, India lost 2,500 to lightning.
In stark contrast, the United States averages 49 lightning deaths per year. Just 80 years ago that number was more than 400. The substantial drop has been due to increased awareness and the implementation of lightning conductive material in building codes.
According to Ronald Holle, a lightning expert at Vaisala Inc. in Arizona, many of the deaths occur because people work outside, usually farming or other manual labor. This is out of necessity to earn a living, or they are simply oblivious to the risk.
In an interview with The Guardian, Holle iterates that when impoverished citizens do take shelter, they are still at risk. “Many poor people live in wooden homes with no metal, wiring, or plumbing which would provide a path for the lightning. It’s usually the fire that kills.”
After Mexico lost approximately 7,300 of its citizens to lightning over the past 30 years, the Mexican government commissioned a study to investigate. The study revealed that two-thirds of the deaths occurred in just seven of the country’s 32 states and that a majority of these states have citizens with low education levels and agricultural driven economies.
As reported by The Guardian, the study concluded that the Mexican government failed to educate about lightning safety, and that random lightning strikes alone could not have killed that many citizens.
Fortunately, education measures are being implemented to raise safety awareness. There also have been efforts to retrofit buildings with lightning conductive material.
Lightning prone areas in Africa have also been raising safety awareness. The African Centers for Lightning and Electromagnetics are educating civilians about the misconceptions that taking shelter under trees, rocky overhang or laying flat on the ground is safe. They stress it is best to go to a low-laying area not by water or metal.
The group is also installing lightning rods in rural villages. Lightning rods catch lightning strikes and conduct them into the ground, keeping people safe.
Lighting fatality totals are tricky to obtain because so many go unreported. Estimates range from 6,000 to 24,000 annually. Approximately 10 times as many are injured by lightning strikes each year, which can leave victims with neurological damage, memory loss and paralysis along with other wounds.
Fortunately, with the implementation of safety education and proper infrastructure, the world’s poor should be at less of a risk to lightning strikes.