for National Geographic News
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Do you know what to do when lightning is near? Read these flash facts
Lightning is a killer. It claims more victims each year than do snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. It keeps a low profile as the second largest weather-related killer, usually striking one person at a time. Only floods, which can wipe out towns, kill more people.
According to the U.S. National Weather Service, 73 people die from lightning strikes each year and hundreds more suffer life-debilitating injuries. Memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, and weakness are some of the maladies cited.
The highest death rates from lightning in the United States are in Florida, which is known as the lightning capital of the country. According to the service, from 1959 to 2003 lightning killed 3,696 people in the United States. Of those, 425 were in the Sunshine State. (The only state that did not record a lightning death in the period was Alaska).
Lightning has injured at least 2,000 people in Florida since 1959.
"A lot of people in Florida are involved with outdoor activities. People are out golfing, they are out boating, so the odds of getting hit by a lightning flash are greater," said Stephen Hodanish, a senior meteorologist and lightning expert with the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colorado.
While Florida is also the state where the most lightning flashes strike the ground, injury and fatality rates do not exactly correlate with where the most strikes occur. Rather, lightning tends to strike people in places where there are people to strike.
For example, Colorado is 24th in lightning flash density, but is ranked 10th for lightning casualty rates, said Hodanish. The reason for the discrepancy is that a lot of Coloradoans participate in outdoor activities like hiking and camping in the exposed, lightning-prone high country.
On any given afternoon, unstable breezes and moisture ratchet up cumulonimbus clouds in a whirlwind of updrafts and downdrafts that cause particles of rain, ice, and snow to collide.
The collisions prompt electrical charges to separate. Positive charges shoot high, while negative charges hang low. Electrical imbalance intensifies within the cloud and between the cloud and ground.
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