Lowering The Lightning Odds

Just how likely are you to be struck by lightning? If you're a boater in certain parts of the country, more likely than you might think.

By Beth Leonard
Published: July 2014

If you boat in certain areas, you're even more likely to have a close encounter of the electrifying kind. That's because lightning strikes are far from evenly distributed across the country as Figure 3 shows. That translates into far more lightning deaths in Florida than any other state (Figure 4).

Chart: Cloud-to-Ground Lightning Incidence In The Continental U.S. (1997-2010)
Source: Vaisala Reprinted with Permission
Figure 3. Cloud-to-Ground Lightning Incidence In The Continental U.S. (1997-2010)

Chart: Lightning Fatalities By State, 1959-2012
Source: Vaisala Reprinted with Permission
Figure 4. Lightning Fatalities By State, 1959-2012

So, if you boat or fish in Florida (and a few other high-risk states), your odds of being struck by lightning are clearly higher than average. How much higher? Still nowhere near dying of a heart attack, but high enough that it's not silly to think about. (If you boat on the West Coast, getting struck by lightning is silly to think about.)

OK, enough about you for the moment. How likely is your boat to be struck? The BoatUS Marine Insurance files suggest the incidence is somewhere around 1 in 1,000. And that's not lifetime risk — that's anytime risk. Most of us know someone whose boat has been hit. So your boat is much more at risk than you are. That's because it can't hide under the bed. Most boats can't even get in out of the storm. And, if it's miles from shore or has a big mast sticking out of it, it's very likely the tallest thing around. In a future issue, we'll talk about boats and lightning. But in the meantime, if we can make you safer, we'd like to. Until now, there's been no way to reduce your risk other than to get off the water at the first rumble of thunder. Very good advice, if not always a practical option. But today, technology can lend a hand.

Radar Cast Elite App
Figure 5. Radar Cast Elite App

NOAA has made real-time lightning strike data available, and a number of app developers have integrated it into high-definition weather radar apps for both the iPhone and Android. Google "lightning app NOAA" and you'll find a selection. In addition to keeping you informed of storm activity and movement, these can give you a heads up when lightning is in your area, and allow you to see if it is moving toward you. If you are not too far offshore, they can provide adequate warning to get off the water and to safety before you even get wet.

So go online and get an app. It may not radically reduce the (already low) odds of your getting struck by lightning, but it's cool. And there is a very, very small chance that it will save your boat — or even your life — someday.End of story marker


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