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Jan Lee headshot

Lightning Strikes: Will Cities Make Us Safer?

Words by Jan Lee

Urbanization of America’s once pristine countryside is the latest theory to be offered for why lightning deaths have been declining in the U.S. recently.  According to the National Weather Service,  23 people died from lightning strikes in 2013. That’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to 60-70 years ago, when the numbers were in the hundreds.

So is it the American love for city life and tall buildings that has changed that statistic?

Maybe - or maybe not.

The NWS pointed out in its August 2012 bulletin that educating the public about the dangers of lightning, especially in areas like Miami and communities close to water, has made a big difference in reducing fatalities in large population areas.

So have the various warning systems that have been put in place since the 1940s, which aren’t necessarily limited to dense population areas. Not surprisingly with the technological advancements of the 21st century, lightning detectors now come in a variety colors, shapes, and sizes, ranging from fit-in-your palm to ground-based. Of course, as one Miami community unfortunately found out, they aren’t 100 percent on track. A young boy died after being hit by lightning while walking to football practice in the city before his coach could sound an alarm.

And only last week, another piece of evidence emerged that suggests that urban living may not be the saving grace against being hit by lightning. The victim’s location is being blamed for the incessant hits, but interestingly, it’s urban planning in this case that is working against safety measures.

Rio de Janeiro’s 100-ft-tall Christ the Redeemer has already lost a thumb and part of a finger to recent lightning strikes this year. Those statistics are low compared late last year, when the statue was sustaining hits several times a week. Fortunately, none of the recent lightning “injuries” have been as bad as in 2008, when the statue underwent extensive restoration.

In this case, the prominence of city life below its feet is actually what’s causing the problem. An authority from the Atmospheric Electricity Group (ELAT), in Sao José dos Campos, Brazil suggested that the problem may actually be climate change due to the amount of carbon-producing cars on Rio’s busy streets.

“As the city becomes more urbanized, it creates an island of heat, because the vegetation is replaced by asphalt and homes. The increase in the number of cars is also a factor, because it generates more pollution, which contributes to the formation of lightning.” Osmar Pinto, Jr., coordinator of ELAT/INPE explained in an article by William Jones, published in The Rio Times.

In fact, in 2012, ELAT, which is part of the Brazil’s National Institute Space Research (INPE), launched a new program to address lightning concerns: the Brazilian Network of Lightning Detection (BrasilDAT). Its mandate is to "make the region one of the world’s better prepared to monitor climate change.” According to INPE, the prominence of lightning in Brazil’s burgeoning metropolis goes hand-in-hand with the country’s urban spread.

It’s also a theory that’s been explored here in the U.S. Leanna Shea Rose based her doctorate thesis on that question. The weighty-sounding thesis, A Spatial Analysis of Lightning Strikes and Precipitation in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia Region (2008) explored factors related to lightning in one of the nation’s most dangerous locations for lightning storms.

“Numerous studies have found urban enhancement of rainfall and lightning,” notes Rose. However, the reasons for these anomalies are still unclear and explanations invoking urban heating, pollutants and surface roughness have been proposed for each of these phenomena.”

As Pinto at INPE points out, research in the last couple of years indicates that urbanization doesn’t decrease the existence of lightning, but in increases it. So perhaps it isn’t urbanization that is our protecting shield, but education and advance preparation. If predictions are right about the uptick in climate change as global warming increases, community awareness and preparation  may be our strongest ally after all.

Image of lighting over Quebéc City, Que. Canada courtesy of Jp Marquis

Image of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue above Rio de Janeiro courtesy of Klaus

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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