When Lightning Strikes

Lightning illuminates the sky at night over a view of cars lining the road.

Lightning strikes in Rio. View from near Copacabana beach.
Photo by Laszlo Ilyes licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

I always take comfort in the fact that Brazil is spared the types of natural catastrophes that afflict many other countries. Tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, blizzards, and avalanches are all unheard of and earthquakes are negligible to non-existent. Sure there are floods and mudslides, but in most cases, the damage they inflict is due to human negligence and lack of proper planning and infrastructure rather than Mother Nature’s viciousness.

What most people–including, until recently, me–don’t know about Brazil is that it’s the country where you’re most likely to be zapped by lightning.What most people–including, until recently, me–don’t know about Brazil is that it’s the country where you’re most likely to be zapped by lightning. That’s because when it comes to the frequency of raios, Brazil is the world champion. According to statistics compiled by the Grupo de Eletricidade Atmosférica (Elat) , a research group devoted to the study of atmospheric electricity, which is part of Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe), lightning strikes in Brazil around 58 million times a year – and 156,000 times a day.

Moreover, each year the number of lightning strikes has been increasing. Researchers at Elat believe that recent climate change is the culprit; they estimate that for every degree the temperature rises, the frequency of lightning can increase by between 10 and 20 percent.

Over the last 10 years, lightning bolts have been the cause of 1,321 deaths in Brazil. Last year alone there were 81 fatalities. The largest number occurred in the North (the state of Amazonas receives the largest number of lightning bolts; around 11 million a year), followed by the Central-West. The fewest number of deaths occurred in the South.

However, according to lightning specialist Oscar Pinto Junior, coordinator at Elat, the number of deaths is less a result of the frequency of lightning strikes than it is education and awareness levels. “If you go to regions where access to Internet or the media is limited, the number of deaths by lightning increases,” he pointed out in a recent interview posted on BBC Brasil. “Our research shows that 80 percent of deaths can be avoided if people know how to react during a storm.”

Elat realized that the same tendency holds true in the U.S.–which last year ranked 3rd in terms of lightning bolts with 35 million strikes. In fact, it studied American lightning-related safety procedures when putting together a primer aimed at helping Brazilians steer clear of high risk situations. However, it ended up having to make some adaptations due to cultural differences.

In the U.S., for example, many people are struck by lightning while out playing golf; the likeliness of this occurring in Brazil is about the same as having your car skid out of control on black ice. In Brazil, meanwhile, the leading activities linked to death by lightning are outdoor farming tasks such as taking care of cattle or working in the fields with metal tools and equipment. Unsurprisingly, 10 percent of Brazilian lightning fatalities take place on soccer fields.

To make sure you don’t get zapped while in Brazil, here are some Lightning Tips:

  • Stay away from wide open spaces (if on a beach, seek shelter off the sand)
  • Get out of the water (whether the ocean, a swimming pool, or even a shower); water is a major conductor of electricity
  • Cell phone aren’t a danger (unless they’re plugged into rechargers) nor are fixed phones (as long as they’re wireless).
  • Buildings are safer than houses, which are safer than being outdoors
  • If you’re in a car, shut all the doors and windows, sit back, relax, and stay away from all metallic surfaces. (There is no recorded instance of anyone in Brazil ever having been killed by lightning while sitting in a closed car).

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