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Lightning Occurrence and Casualties in U.S. National Parks

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  • 1 a Vaisala, Inc., Tucson, Arizona
  • | 2 b The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
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Abstract

National park visitors travel primarily to view natural features while outdoors; however, visits often occur in warmer months when lightning is present. This study uses cloud-to-ground flashes from 1999 to 2018 and cloud-to-ground strokes from 2009 to 2018 from the National Lightning Detection Network to identify lightning at the 46 contiguous United States national parks larger than 100 km2. The largest density is 6.10 flashes per kilometer squared per year within Florida’s Everglades, and the smallest is near zero in Pinnacles National Park. The six most-visited parks are Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. For each of these parks, lightning data are described by frequency and location as well as time of year and day. The four parks west of the Continental Divide have most lightning from 1 July to 15 September and from 1100 to 1900 LST. Each park has its own spatial lightning pattern that is dependent on local topography. Deaths and injuries from lightning within national parks have the same summer afternoon dominance shown by lightning data. Most casualties occur to people visiting from outside the parks’ states. The most common activities and locations are mountain climbing, hiking, and viewing canyons from overlooks. Lightning fatality risk, the product of areal visitor and CG flash densities, shows that many casualties are not in parks with high risk, while very small risk indicates parks where lightning awareness efforts can be minimized. As a result, safety advice should focus on specific locations such as canyon rims, mountains, and exposed high-altitude roads where lightning-vulnerable activities are engaged in by many visitors.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-19-0155.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Ronald L. Holle, ron.holle@vaisala.com

Abstract

National park visitors travel primarily to view natural features while outdoors; however, visits often occur in warmer months when lightning is present. This study uses cloud-to-ground flashes from 1999 to 2018 and cloud-to-ground strokes from 2009 to 2018 from the National Lightning Detection Network to identify lightning at the 46 contiguous United States national parks larger than 100 km2. The largest density is 6.10 flashes per kilometer squared per year within Florida’s Everglades, and the smallest is near zero in Pinnacles National Park. The six most-visited parks are Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. For each of these parks, lightning data are described by frequency and location as well as time of year and day. The four parks west of the Continental Divide have most lightning from 1 July to 15 September and from 1100 to 1900 LST. Each park has its own spatial lightning pattern that is dependent on local topography. Deaths and injuries from lightning within national parks have the same summer afternoon dominance shown by lightning data. Most casualties occur to people visiting from outside the parks’ states. The most common activities and locations are mountain climbing, hiking, and viewing canyons from overlooks. Lightning fatality risk, the product of areal visitor and CG flash densities, shows that many casualties are not in parks with high risk, while very small risk indicates parks where lightning awareness efforts can be minimized. As a result, safety advice should focus on specific locations such as canyon rims, mountains, and exposed high-altitude roads where lightning-vulnerable activities are engaged in by many visitors.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-19-0155.s1.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Ronald L. Holle, ron.holle@vaisala.com

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