John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A county-by-county look.
One moment you're strolling across the golf course, pointing a 9 iron at a funny-looking cloud. The next your body is wracked with the searing pain of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and you've got the beginnings of a weird scar shaped like a fractal.
Such is the lightningophobe's nightmare, and statistically speaking, lightning-on-human violence has grouped in certain areas of the country more than others. Geography also plays a role in where lightning causes property damage and where bolt-throwing storms lay waste to crops – and all this collective misery is now on display in the Google Maps Gallery's "Lightning Spatial Hazard Events and Losses for the United States, 1995-2009."
The map is a plotting of lightning "events" over a 15-year period, arranged by county. Darker-red areas show where these events – categorized as injuries, fatalities, and instances of property and crop destruction – have tended to happen more regularly. A couple possible correlations pop out: There appears to be more lightning carnage happening near some cities and the Northeast Corridor, no doubt due to the heavier population density. And a broad red wash across Florida suggests it won't be giving up its claim as the most lightning-cursed state in the union.
It's tempting to see more event-prone counties as the ones with the most deaths; in many cases, like with the 13 fatalities logged in Florida's Broward County, it works out. But the organization that compiled this data, the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, is drawing from a variety of sources that include things like lightning-sparked fires and damage to electrical equipment. Thus, Texas' Tarrant County had 51 events but only two fatalities. It's best to click on each county to see the breakdown (or if you want even more detail, use this advanced search engine).
In a typical year, the U.S. is zapped by more than 22 million lightning strikes that kill 55 to 60 people and injure 400. People who really are prepared to move house and home to avoid a greater (though still tiny) chance of being grandly frizzled can consult this map of lightning-flash density. There's also this state-by-state breakdown of recent history's fatal hits:
And from NASA, there's this psychedelic image of the world's lightning activity represented by annual flashes per square kilometer. Stay out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo!