By TANYA PORCARI, age 11

Lightning over Atlanta, GA. In 2013, 23 deaths by lightning were recorded in the United States. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Lightning over Atlanta, GA. In 2013, 23 deaths by lightning were recorded in the United States. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The odds of being struck by lightning are much higher than average in South Africa, where 260 lightning-related deaths are recorded each year out of the nation’s population of 51 million people. By comparison, 23 deaths by lightning were recorded in 2013 in the United States, where the population totals 314 million. High elevation and a subtropical climate make South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, vulnerable to lightning.

Wits University, in Johannesburg, has new findings on how lightning affects the human body on the cellular level. This will help doctors and educators explain whether or not a person died from a lighting strike. Forensic anthropologist Patrick Randolph-Quinney and his team have found evidence of certain patterns of damage to the structure of human bone cells indicating extreme levels of energy that could come from being struck by lightning. Researchers also predict that dry human skin will prove to have a low conductivity rate, which would explain why after being struck by lightning humans rarely have external burns. On the other hand, the fluid-based tissues inside of the body have higher conductivity rates. Some of the observed effects of a lightning strike on the human body are memory loss, insomnia and depression.

In countries where some people believe that lightning is related to witchcraft, scientists are trying to educate people by providing schools and media with basic safety rules. They also developed computer games that teach elementary school students on how to be safe during storms.

Some of the observed effects of a lightning strike on the human body are memory loss, insomnia and depression. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Some of the observed effects of a lightning strike on the human body are memory loss, insomnia and depression. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

SAFETY TIPS FROM NASA

  • Stay away from open spaces, but do not stand under a tree. The best place is inside of a building.
  • If you are swimming, get out of the water. Get out as soon as you see a storm coming. The storm may seem far away, but lightning can travel over 20 miles!
  • During a thunderstorm, shut off or unplug all electrical items. Do not use the phone.
  • Never walk in a thunderstorm carrying a metal pole. Don’t even carry an umbrella!
  • How will you know if a lightning strike is near you? You will feel the hair on your head or body start to stand up. If this happens, go to a safe place. Go quickly! If there is no safe place near, get as close to the ground as you can.

conductivity – the measure of a material’s ability to carry an electric current