John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Sometimes Mother Nature can be so sexist.
A fisherman knee-deep in a lake, a man lying against a tree, a roofer working atop a car dealership—these are just some of those who were killed by lightning in 2014, a year that so far has seen a 100 percent-male ratio for fatal U.S. strikes.
Seven American men have died from lightning since January. Add to that grim tally the nine consecutive male fatalities last fall, and you have the longest lightning-on-dude killing streak since at least 2006. It's a statistical fluke strong enough to get the #YesAllMen crowd crying misandry at Mother Nature.
But this all-XY zapfest is a testament to the sad fact that when it comes to men and fusillades of sky electricity, some things never change. Men are disproportionately represented in the history of lightning deaths. Since 2006, they've comprised 81 percent of such tragedies, as the National Weather Service shows in this graphic for the ongoing Lightning Safety Awareness Week:
Why is that? Commenters on the weather agency's Facebook page are full of theories. One woman believes it's because "[m]ore men work outside." Another guesses: "It's b/c they're out in lightening storms holding what essentially equates to lightening rods. Such as guns, fishing poles and other metal sports equipment. So basically it's b/c men are stupid."
And here are thoughts from the male commenters: "More men get hit cause more men play golf and refuse to leave the course lol." And, "Hate to admit it but women are smart enough to go inside. We men love to get up personal with storms." And in a similar vein, "When there's a thunderstorm, I want to look at it. And watch it progress...especially because we don't have that many here in SoCal. It's just a natural pull towards it, or any other notable weather event."
Last summer, NOAA scientist John Jensenius Jr. penned a study about this meteorological gender disparity. In looking at fatal strikes since 2006, he found that 64 percent occurred while the victims were engaged in recreational activities such as camping, fishing, soccer, and golf. (Fishing topped the list with 26 deaths, followed by camping and boating.) One might wonder, as the Weather Channel did, if these leisure-time diversions are enjoyed by "mostly male participants."
These are Jensenius' suppositions from the study:
Based on the statistics for gender, the vast majority of lightning victims are male. Possible explanations for this finding are that males are unaware of all the dangers associated with lightning, are more likely to be in vulnerable situations, are unwilling to be inconvenienced by the threat of lightning, are in situations that make it difficult to get to a safe place in a timely manner, don't react quickly to the lightning threat, or any combination of these explanations. In short, because of their behavior, males are at a higher risk of being struck and, consequently, are struck and killed by lightning more often than females.
So who were the men unlucky enough to meet this year with a 300 million-volt bolt from the blue? Here's the brief list, in chronological order from May to June (more details are available at the NWS):
• A 60-year-old found slumped near a lightning-hit tree in his backyard in Nacogdoches, Texas. "A witness reported hearing a loud boom that shook the house," writes KTRE-TV.
• A 40-year-old construction worker who had gone to check on his car in Seminole, Florida. "It was raining," said his boss. "He went to close his windows, and 15 minutes later he didn't come back."
• A 71-year-old fishing in a lake when storms moved through Plant City, Florida. Reports ABC News: "Deputies said while waiting to remove the body, an alligator went toward it and forced a deputy to shoot. The alligator was hit and swam away underwater."
• A 44-year-old struck while riding his motorcycle in Cimarron, New Mexico. He veered off the road and crashed.
• A 55-year-old roofer working at an auto dealership in Pompono Beach, Florida. "Out of nowhere, a single strike hit," the dealer's spokesman told a newspaper. "The skies at the time were clear."
• A 71-year-old picking blueberries at a farm in Milton, Florida. "There were a cluster of thunderstorms over the area at the time, but they weren't anything we would consider unusual," a meteorologist said.
• A 32-year-old found under a tree in a park in Pittsfield, Michigan. The man who noticed him said he "was in a resting position, as anyone would rest under a tree on a sunny day."
Going back to the nine fatalities toward the end of 2013, the victims were engaged in these activities: hanging tobacco in a barn (two men), doing something vehicle-related under a tree (three men), power-washing underneath a tractor trailer, playing in a back yard, working on a billboard, and finally, fishing in a canoe.
About 300 people in the U.S. are struck by lightning each year, leading to an average of 30 fatalities. The good news is that thanks to a growing awareness of the dangers of thunderstorms, this death toll is a shadow of what it was in the 20th century. An incredible 131 people died from lightning in 1969, but since the late '60s lightning-related deaths have decreased by 78.6 percent among men and 70.6 percent among females, according to the CDC.