Why hiding under trees is the worst place to be in a thunderstorm

Lightning safety experts say when lightning strikes a tree, the charge doesn't penetrate deep into the ground, but rather spreads out along the ground surface in something called ground current. It can lead to multiple injuries and deaths as what happened with a lightning strike near the White House Thursday.

WASHINGTON In the wake of three lightning-related deaths of visitors to the White House grounds on Thursday, the National Lightning Safety Council is warning that the recent tragedy had much in common with other recent lightning-related incidents that claimed the lives of multiple people: All the victims were under trees that were struck by lightning.

The thunderstorm killed a 75-year-old man and 76-year-old woman visiting from Wisconsin, as well as a 29-year-old man when the bolt hit a tree in Lafayette Park just outside the White House Thursday evening. A fourth victim remains in critical condition.


Why is sheltering under a tree so dangerous?  

"As the initial lightning channel moves rapidly from the cloud toward the ground, it is simply looking for the closest connection," said John Jensenius with the National Lightning Safety Council. "That closest connection is usually one of the taller objects in the immediate area, which is often a tree."


Jensenius says while tall objects don't attract lightning, they are more likely to be struck.  

"When lightning strikes a tree, the charge doesn't penetrate deep into the ground, but rather spreads out along the ground surface in something called ground current," he said. "That makes the entire area around a tree dangerous, and anyone standing under or near a tree is vulnerable to this potentially deadly ground current. In addition, for those standing within several feet of a tree, the lightning charge, or a portion of the charge, can jump from the tree directly to the person."

Washington strike is 15th multiple-fatality lightning event since 2012

Jensenius says over the 10 years from 2012 to 2021, there had been 14 lightning-related incidents that have killed two people, averaging about one to two such incidents a year. The last one was nearly exactly two years prior, when two men were killed by lightning in Wilmington, North Carolina, while working in a yard.

The last lightning strike to kill three people was on June 27, 2004, when they were standing under a tree at Bedford Dam State Park in Georgia. Six others were injured in that strike.

"They had been on a beach at the park and were reportedly seeking shelter and under trees at the time of the lightning strike," Jensenius said.


Jensenius stressed these incidents underscore the need to seek shelter early when thunderstorms approach, well before the rain arrives.

"If you wait until it starts raining, you're putting your life in jeopardy," he said. "Lightning can strike 10 miles from the rain area in a thunderstorm.  If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance of the storm and need to get to a safe place immediately."

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