When lightning struck 44 Army Rangers this week in Florida, leaving 11 in the hospital, jaws must have dropped. What are the odds of that?
The answer: Very low in most places, but not so, so low in Florida.
The rough chance of being bolted by lightning in a lifetime is about 1 in 12,000, but the odds discriminate by region.
Lightning is not partial to touching down on the West Coast, but it loves the South, particularly Florida, NASA says. Local researchers concur. “Florida ranks No. 1 in the number of deaths due to lightning,” says the University of Florida.
Rangers’ lightning exercise
But before we get to that, let’s recap what happened to the Rangers:
Ironically, they were training near Eglin Air Force Base outside Pensacola on how to avoid being injured by lightning, or “conducting lightning protection protocols,” when they were electrified. The group had completed six of the 10 days in their training program when it happened.
Originally 17 were hospitalized, and late Wednesday, 11 of them — nine students and two instructors — were still in the hospital.
Up to 75 times higher
Obviously, where there are many more storms, there will be much more lightning, but the difference in the number of strikes is stark. In the hottest spots in South Florida, lightning strikes up to 75 times more often than on the opposite corner of the country.
A quick glance at local Florida news reports turns up plenty of examples. This month, lightning strikes were blamed for at least two house fires and a grass fire, and killed one man in the south of the state — all in a single day.
Last month, lightning struck three people on a beach, was blamed in reports for at least two house fires, injured a teen standing on a roof and knocked out the scoreboard at a baseball field.
You don’t find that kind of action in Portland, Oregon.
Where the Rangers were training is not in the worst strike zone in the state, but it’s still dicey. Near there on the Alabama coast, a 12-year-old girl was reportedly killed last month by lightning.
Also, the time of year matters. Florida is in the middle of lightning season, as the University of Florida calls it. It lasts from late May through late September.
In the last 10 years, lightning has killed an average 32 people a year, the National Weather Service says. Florida has had the most deaths by far in that time.
Lightning is a major weather killer, ranking behind flood, tornadoes, extreme heat and hurricanes.
Studies dating further back showed a much higher death rate due to lightning strikes, about 100 per year, ranking them higher than all other weather dangers aside from flood. But the NWS says that data is no longer up to date.
With global warming on the rise, NASA warns that lightning strikes are climbing too, along with the increase in the number of strong storms.