animated gif imageVirginia Thunderstorms and Lightning
By Barbara Watson



        Virginia averages 35 to 45 thunderstorm days per year. Thunderstorms can occur any day of the year and at any time of the day, but are most common in the late afternoon and evening during the summer months. Thunderstorms are generally beneficial. They provide needed rain for crops, plants, and reservoirs. However, about five percent of thunderstorms become severe and can produce tornadoes, large hail, damaging downburst winds, and heavy rains causing flash floods. Thunderstorm can develop in less than 30 minutes, allowing little time for warning.  All thunderstorms produce lightning which can be deadly. The National Weather Service does not issue warnings for ordinary thunderstorms nor for lightning. The National Weather Service does highlight the potential for thunderstorms in the daily forecasts and statements.  Be alert to the signs of changing weather, such as darking skies, a sudden windshift and drop in temperature, and having a warning device such as NOAA Weather Radio. Staying alert and listening to NOAA Weather Radio can mean the difference between life and death when a thunderstorm approaches.

Lightning Flash Density Map computed for 1989 by the Electric Power Institute
    Lightning Flash Density Map computed for 1989 by the Electric Power Institute, courtesy of the University of Virginia, Climate Division. Web page:  www.climate.virginia.edu/climate/lightning.density.html


Basic Lightning facts and Information

tree blown apart by lightningA thunderstorm's most striking feature is lightning which kills more than 80 people a year in the United States and injures over 400 people. Some recent studies suggest that only 1 in 10 lightning injuries accounted for in these statistics. Most lightning deaths and injures are preventable with proper safety precautions. The most basic precaution is "don't make yourself an easy target or stand next to one" such as under a tall tree or pole. The general rule is that "if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning" and therefore should move immediately to safety.

       "Thunder" occurs when the air around a lightning bolt rapidly expands from the sudden heat (temperature of a lightning bolt is about 50,000°F) and then cools as the bolt dissipates. This expansion (from heating) and contraction (from cooling) produces a shock wave which we hear as thunder. Sound travels about one mile every 5 seconds. By watching the time (or counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) between when you see the flash of lightning and when you hear the rumble of thunder, you can estimate how many miles away the strike was.

electrical polarity of ground and clouds        Hence, 10 seconds is 2 miles.  Typically, you can hear thunder up to 5 or 6 miles away, which would be within 30 seconds from flash to thunder.  You can return to your activities after thunder has not been heard for 30 minutes.  This is sometimes referred to as the "30/30 rule".  If the last flash was determined to be 3 or 5 miles away, you can not assume the next one will be the same distance or near that one. You can not assume that you are safe!  A study in Florida showed that the average distance between successive lightning strikes was 2 to 3 miles!

thunderstorm with lightning     Lightning can strike up to 10 to 15 miles from the rain portion of the storm. How does it do that?  In these cases, the lightning bolt originates from the upper part of the thunderstorm cloud known as the anvil. A thunderstorm can grow up to 8 miles into the atmosphere where the strong winds aloft spread the top of the thunderstorm cloud out into an anvil. The anvil can spread many miles from the rain portion of the storm but it is still a part of that storm. Lightning, from the anvil, may strike several miles in advance of the rain. Lightning bolts may also come from the side or back of the storm, striking after the rain and storm have seemed to have passed or hitting areas that were totally missed by the rain. The sun may still be shining on you at the time of the strike and therefore, the danger is not perceived. People talk of lightning striking out of the "blue", but really it is from a nearby thunderstorm.


Lightning Statistics

       Between 1959 and the year 2000, lightning has killed 58 people in Virginia and injured at least 238 people. Many additional injuries from lightning go unreported or are not captured by NWS data collection techniques.  Nationally, from 1959 through 1994, 13,057 people were casualties to lightning with 3239 deaths. Most deaths were males between the ages of 20 and 40 years old who were caught outdoors on ballfields, near open water, or under trees. Nationally, most casualties occurred between 1 pm  and 5 pm and were most frequent on weekends. The percentage of lightning casualties that occur during recreational activities continues to raise in both Virginia and the nation as a whole.  The National Lightning Detection System identified an average of over 7 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per year. This system detects about 70 percent of flashes and therefore, there is a lightning casualty about once in every 86,000 strikes.

Virginia Lightning Statistics by Location for years 1959 through 2000

Location
Deaths
Injuries
Open space
14
35
Under trees
17
46
On or near water
6
14
Golf course
3
9
On the phone
0
7
On/near heavy equipment
3
8
Near Door/Window
0
14
Other/Unknown
15
105

Virginia Lightning Statistics by Month, for years 1959 through 2000

Month
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
Deaths
0
1
11
14
16
13
3
Injuries
6
3
15
35
83
56
10
graph of Virginia lightning statistics

animated lightning imageVIRGINIA LIGHTNING STORIES:

The true stories provided below support the facts and statistics stated above. They will give the reader a keener sense of the risk of not heeding the signs of threatening weather.  This is the purpose of providing these stories. It does happen here. It can happen to you. Knowing what to do and taking the appropriate safety precautions can save your life.

August 10, 1943: Six soldiers were struck and killed on the drill field at Fort Belvoir.

June 6, 1950: Lightning hit a signal tower in Alexandria during a torrential rainstorm. It caused two trains to crash a short distance from Alexandria Station. Hundreds of people were bruised and shaken as they were thrown from their seats. Eleven people were taken to the hospital.

July 10, 1975: At 5:20 pm in Manassas, a 9 year-old girl playing under a tree is struck and killed by lightning. Two of her friends were hospitalized and two men near-by, playing croquet, were also injured.

July 20, 1975: Around 1:30 pm in Annadale (Fairfax County), 16 people were struck and injured while picnicking.

June 26, 1977 Park Ranger Roy C. Sullivan worked many years at Shenandoah National Park. On this day, Roy was struck by lightning for the seventh time earning him the title of "the human lightning conductor." The first time occurred in 1942 as he was working up in a lookout tower. The lightning bolt caused him to lose his big toe nail. In 1969, he was driving along a mountain road when the bolt struck. (Cars and trucks will not protect you if the window is open). He lost his eye brows. In 1970, he was walking across his yard to get the mail when lightning struck. His shoulder was seared. In 1972, he was standing in the office at the ranger station when lightning set his hair on fire. In 1973, after his hair had grown back, he was struck again. His hair was again set on fire and his legs were seared. In 1976, while checking on a campsite, he was struck injuring his ankle. His last and seventh encounter was while fishing. Lightning caused chest and stomach burns. It is not only amazing that Roy was injured seven times by lightning, but it is astounding that he was not killed! His death in his 70's was not related to lightning. He committed suicide and was said to be distraught over the loss of a woman. It was never determined why lightning seemed to be attracted to him.

September 3, 1977: A 19 year-old hitch-hiker was struck and killed by lightning while leaning against a metal road sign on the southbound ramp of I-81 in Staunton.

July 13, 1982 Lightning struck a woman in Chesterfield County. It was evening and she was sitting on a metal swing set in her back yard enjoying the cool breeze that had rolled in. She could hear the distant thunderstorm, but the sun was shining in her yard. Suddenly, she heard a loud noise and felt pain. Lightning struck the swing set and traveled through her body to the ground. Her shoes were blown off her feet and she received burns on her back and legs.

May 9, 1993: In Roanoke, a young child was injured at a window when lightning struck a nearby tree.

August 3, 1993: At 1:30 pm in Chesterfield County, lightning struck and killed a 30 year old man as he mowed his lawn.

August 25, 1993: In Augusta County, while attending an outdoor funnel, people took refuge under a tree from a thunderstorm. Lightning struck the tree injuring four people.

May 25, 1994: At 5:20 pm, a 26 year old male took refuge under a tree on a golf course in Henrico County. The tree was struck and the lightning killed the man.

June 14, 1994:  Around 3:15 pm, bolt of lightning struck and critically injured a 50-year-old woman and a 38-year-old man playing in a golf tornament at Greenbrier Country Club in Norfolk. Both suffered severe burns.

June 16 , 1994: A family was enjoying the afternoon on Lake Moomaw in Bath County when a sudden thunderstorm approached. They took refuge on a small island only 300 by 100 yards wide, which provided little protection. They sought shelter under some tall pines, the tallest objects around for some distance. Lightning struck the pines killing the entire family of five instantly. Ages ranged from 10 year old to 63 years old.

July 20, 1994: Several separate lightning bolts struck Camp Pickett injuring seven officers. Two suffered serious injuries and had to be resuscitated several times. Most of the men were injured while inside tents with metal poles, where they were conducting an exercise.


1995 through 2000

Note: All Lightning Fatalities and all lightning injuries in Virginia found in the official NOAA "Storm Data" publication after 1995 are listed below for those events where a description of the event was included.

May 25, 1995: A woman, carrying an umbrella, was struck outside a high school in Winchester while walking to her car. She suffered first degree burns on her left hand where the lightning came down the umbrella and entered her body and on her right foot where the lightning left her body and entered the ground.

June 3, 1995: at around 9:10 pm 2 miles north of Blackstone in Nottoway County, a Man received second degree burns when struck by lightning while standing near an outside basement entrance.

July 17, 1995: A 15-year old boy was injured by lightning while touching an outdoor light switch at a swim and tennis club just outside Charlottesville. He had been playing tennis and was leaving the courts due to the storm when he was struck.

July 21, 1995: At around 5:15 pm, a camper at Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County took refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm. The tree was struck by lightning. The lightning caused second degree burns over 20 percent of the person's body.

July 27, 1995: At around 11 pm in Powhatan County, a woman received minor injuries when lightning struck her near the front door of her house.

July 28, 1995: At 8 pm, a 15 year old girl was struck and killed in Northampton County as she walked along Smith Beach. Also on this day around 4:15 pm in Danville, a woman was slightly injured by lightning while standing near a window in her house.

August 23, 1995: Several members of a marine training battalion were struck as they attempted to leave the rifle range for shelter at Quantico Marine Base. One recruit was killed and four were injured and treated for minor burns. An additional two people were injured in another lightning strike on the base.

May 4, 1996: At around 10:45 pm in Partlow (Spotsylvania County), a man was injured when lightning struck a tree near the porch on which he was standing. He was knocked into shock, but not unconscious. Another lightning strike started a fire in an abandoned trailer.

June 24, 1996: A woman was checking the circuit breaker box in her garage when lightning struck. The ensuing power surge slammed the woman against a vehicle, knocking her unconscious for a short period of time.

July 14, 1996: At 3:15 pm in Rockingham County, a 20 year old male soccer player was struck and killed at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds. The soccer match had been called due to the storm, but the player had not yet sought shelter.

August 26, 1996: In Norfolk at around 3:15 pm, lightning seriously injured two boys who were sitting on the bench of a picnic table beneath a tree.

June 2, 1997:  At Rocky Mt in Franklin County at about 7:30 pm, a lightning strike slightly injured a person in a parking lot.

June 13, 1997: In Newington (Fairfax County) around 1:15 pm, lightning struck and injured a man causing minor burns on his chest. Two nearby homes had fires which were ignited by lightning strikes.

July 16, 1997: Around 2 pm in Henry County, a 42 year old man in his yard was struck and killed by lightning. Lightning also killed 19 cattle at a farm.

July 25, 1997: Around 2 pm in Campbell County, a lightning strike injured a man at Timberlake.

July 28, 1997: At 5:35 pm in Arlington, a man and woman were struck by lightning in the Pentagon's parking lot; the man was listed in serious condition.

August 17, 1997: Around 5:10 pm in Loudoun County, lightning struck a concourse at Washington-Dulles International Airport and injured three airline food service personnel.

March 20, 1998:  At 8:45 pm, a man outside in Chatham (Pittsylvania County) was injured by a lightning strike.

May 8, 1998:  At 10:40 am in Hopewell, a 12 year old boy was injured when he was struck by lightning at the Carter G. Woodson School.

June 13, 1998: Two young persons had been tubing on the James River just south of Scottsville. They were swimming to shore as the thunderstorm moved in and were struck. They were treated and released from the University of Virginia Medical Center.

June 16, 1998 At around 7 pm at Fort Belvoir (southern Fairfax Co), a security guard  was shocked while opening a metal door; he was treated and released from the Army community hospital after slight numbness ensued.

June 24, 1998: In Grayson County about 3.5 miles northeast of Whitetop, at 5:15 pm, Three youths were injured by lightning.

April 4, 1999: On a golf course in Culpeper County, around 4 pm, 37 year old man was struck and killed under a tree. The rest of his group had already safely retreated to the club house when the incident occurred.

August 1, 1999:  At 6:05 pm in Suffolk, several homes were struck by lightning and at least two people were injured.

March 31, 2000: Around 5 pm in Farmville (Prince Edward County), lightning injured a baseball player and a spectator at a baseball game.

June 13, 2000: At 8 pm in East Highland Park (Henrico County), lightning struck near the Classic Amphitheatre and affected a person with a pacemaker. Subject was taken to hospital by ambulance .

June 14, 2000: In Rockingham County, three dispatchers were shocked through their headsets by a lightning strike..

June 21, 2000: In Nottoway County around 6 pm, two national guardsmen were injured by lightning at Camp Pickett..

July 30, 2000: In Virginia beach, a 39 year old man was killed while doing yard work under a tree. Another person was injured. Witnesses said that there was no rain falling at the time and described the lightning bolt as having come "out of clear skies".  In actuality, it came from a nearby thunderstorm. Also on this day in Poquosan around 6:20 pm, a man was struck and injured outside his home.

August 7, 2000 A 33 year old man was struck and killed under a tree at the West Falls Church Metro Station at around 6 pm EDT as a severe thunderstorm swept through the area.

During the period 1995 through 2000, there were 7 lightning fatalities, 54 injuries and near 6.5 million dollars in damages reported in Storm Data.


References:

"Lightning Fatalities, Injuries and Damage Reports in United States, 1959-1994" By Brian Curran, Ronald L. Holle and Rual E. Lopez, NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS SR-193, NWS Scientific Services Division, Southern Region, Fort Worth, TX, October 1997.

"Lightning Injury Research", University of Illinois at Chicago: Emergency Medicine, Mary Ann Cooper, MD
www.uic.edu/~macooper/cindex.htm

David Ludlum. The American Weather Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982, pp. 142-3.

Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, July 1975.

Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, April, July, and September 1977.

Storm Data, DOC/NOAA/NWS, National Climatic Data Center, May 1993.



Last Updated: April 2, 2001