Anatomy of lightning strikes

­When lightning strikes

in mountainous places

BUENA VISTA, Colo. – Lightning killed a newlywed climbing one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks last week.

The Denver Post reported that Kathleen Bartlett and Ryan Pocius were still on their honeymoon when they were hiking at about the 12,500-foot level of 14,199-foot (5,328-meter) Mount Yale. The Chaffee County coroner said the bride probably died immediately after being hit in early afternoon. Pocius was injured but survived.

For all the people who spend time outdoors, not many people get hit. The National Weather Service estimates that the odds of a person being struck in a lifetime of 80 years is just one in 12,000.

But above treeline and especially near the summit of a mountain, the threat seems much greater. The usual rule of thumb is to rise early, make the summit by noon and then hasten down to the relative safety of trees.

But sometimes lightning strikes early. Fifteen people were struck in late June while hiking on Mt. Bierstadt, another 14,000-foot peak located 40 miles west of Denver. It was just before noon. None were killed, although nine later sought medical attention. A German Shepherd dog named Rambo didn’t fare as well. It was killed.

All accounts of the day agree about the sudden turn of weather. One person reported perfect weather until about three minutes before the strike. A man said his hiking poles were making a low hum before he was hit. He reported feeling intense pain before waking up face down on the ground, his legs and arms paralyzed. He soon regained their use.

Lightning deaths by stateThere is no perfect correlation with high ground and lightning. Florida, with a high point of just 345 feet above sea level, leads the United States in fatalities. Colorado is No. 3 in lightning fatalities but some of the highest areas of Colorado, such as the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte, don’t necessarily get the most strikes, according to a report by Stephen Hodanish and Paul Wolyn called “Lightning Climatology for the State of Colorado.”

Wyoming leads the nation in a different if still dubious category: the number of deaths per million residents. Colorado is No. 2. In this category, Arizona, Montana, and Utah also rank in the top 10, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. (See right).

By any measure, the West Coast is relatively immune to lightning threats. While Colorado had 17 fatalities between 2005 and 2014, Washington state had none and Oregon just one.

Lightning deaths by popSteve Clark is president of a group called the Lightning Data Center. It meets monthly in metropolitan Denver to talk about lightning. He believes the relative lack of lightning on the West Coast is explained by the more consistent temperatures and greater moisture.

Storms in the Rocky Mountains, in contrast, tend to be drier. In winter, that produces fluffier snow. That drier air combined with greater temperature differences produces more lightning.

Still, lightning can occur anywhere, says Clark, citing a lightning fatality several years ago on a Los Angeles beach.

Of every 10 people struck by lightning, only one is killed, he says. But about a third of survivors end up with long-term neurological problems, everything from motor coordination to speech to altered moods and appetite. “They can be singular or in combination,” he says.

For more information about national lightning statistics, see the National Weather Service lightning safety page. For a Colorado-centric view of lightning, see the lighting resource page of the Pueblo office of the National Weather  Service.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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