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2023 had more lightning but fewer fatalities in US

The National Lightning Safety Council (NLSC) announced this week that 13 people were killed by lightning in 2023, the second-lowest number since 2001 and well under the 10-year average of 22.

The first national lightning safety awareness campaign was initiated by the National Weather Service and NLSC in 2001. On the decline since then, the lowest fatality count was 2021, when only 11 lightning-related deaths were recorded.

Last year, a study on lightning fatalities by John S. Jensenius, Jr., Lightning Safety Specialist at NLSC, concluded that nearly two-thirds of the lightning deaths happened to people enjoying outdoor leisure activities, including fishing, beach- and boat-related activities and camping.

"Based on the media reports of the fatal incidents, many victims were either headed to safety at the time of the fatal strike or were just steps away from safety," Jensenius noted. "Continued efforts are needed to convince people to move inside a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant. For many outdoor activities, situational awareness and proper planning are essential to safety."

A graph of the number of lightning fatalities since 2001 (National Lightning Safety Council)

A graph of the number of lightning fatalities since 2001 (National Lightning Safety Council)

Meanwhile, lightning activity was at a seven-year high nationally, according to the 2023 Annual Lightning Report by Vaisala Xweather. A lightning "flash" is what would typically be observed as a "strike;" these numbers do not count multiple strikes that may occur in the same channel during one flash.

During 2023, a total of 242 million lightning flashes occurred in the U.S., according to Vaisala Xweather. Lightning density, measured by county, was higher than usual in Mississippi, Alabama, New England and the northwestern corner of the nation. Below-normal activity was experienced in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic region.

Total lightning density (flashes per square kilometer) in 2023. (Vaisala)

Total lightning density (flashes per square kilometer) in 2023. (Vaisala)

Due to its size, Texas led the nation with more than 42 million lightning flashes, but Florida had the highest density. Both are typical during any given year. The highest day of lightning activity was June 14, according to Vaisala Xweather, with over 3.6 million flashes.

One World Trade Center in New York City was struck by lightning 191 times last year, with the Willis Tower in Chicago absorbing 158 strikes. The latter is also the long-term champion for lightning strikes, according to a study conducted by AccuWeather and Vaisala Xweather.

Like tall buildings, wind turbines are frequently struck by lightning. In 2023, over 77,000 lightning strikes hit 31% of wind farms in the U.S. Both wind farms and tall buildings typically have lightning arrestor systems that direct the current safely to the ground.

AEM's Earth Networks Total Lightning Network annual report from 2023 echoed Vaisala's assertion that Texas had the most lightning flashes while Florida had the highest density last year and that overall lightning strikes were up compared to 2022.

Included in AEM's list of notable lightning events last year was the Los Angeles County thundersnow event on Feb. 25, 2023, part of a larger storm system that caused heavy snow and rain in Southern California. July 2023, which was the hottest month ever measured on Earth, was also a stormy month. For states where July had the most lightning flashes, lightning activity was 1.5 to 3.3 percent above the runner-up month, according to AEM.