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Raúl E. López, Ronald L. Holle, and Todd A. Heitkamp

Abstract

Forty-two years of lightning casualty and damage reports in Colorado are summarized. The data are from NOAA's Storm Data, which is compiled monthly by the National Weather Service.

The dataset contains 103 deaths, 299 injuries, and 191 damage reports from 1950 through 1991. Time fluctuations of these lightning events are shown by classifying the data by year, month, and hour of the day. Additional information is provided on age and gender of lightning victims.

Houses were the most common objects reported as damaged by lightning. Fire was the most common source of lightning damage to structures or objects. Comparisons are made of these and other results, when possible, with previous studies of lightning in other locations around the world.

Geographical patterns of lightning incidents for the state are shown in maps of total number of casualties, and number of casualties normalized by population density for each county. Much higher casualty rates per population and area occur over the mountains and some areas of the eastern slopes than elsewhere.

Most often, people were involved in recreation or employment when they became lightning victims. Most frequent locations of lightning casualties, in order, were summits of mountains and ridges, under trees, in the open, and at lakes. Outdoor recreation casualties were most frequent in the mountains, agricultural cases over the eastern plains, and sports and domestic casualties along the urban corridor east of the mountains.

Year-to-year variability was high in all categories. When compared to the steady increase in the population of Colorado, there were fewer casualty and damage reports during the 1970s and early 1980s than before and after that period. Ranch and farm casualties decreased greatly after the early 1960s. Outdoor recreation, urban, and work cases steadily increased over the entire period in accordance with the population increase. However, sports casualties increased at a substantially larger rate than would be expected from the population increase. Statewide lightning victim counts by 5-year periods correlate well with statewide summertime temperature, but not as well with precipitation.

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Raúl E. López, Ronald L. Holle, Todd A. Heitkamp, Michael Boyson, Michael Cherington, and Kenneth Langford

Reliable statistics on lightning deaths and injuries are needed to raise the awareness of the community to the lightning threat and to educate the public to avoid situations vulnerable to lightning injuries. The principal source of information for lightning casualty data in the United States is NOAA's Storm Data. However, several authors have claimed that this publication underreports lightning deaths and injuries. The authors have conducted a detailed investigation of this issue for Colorado from 1980 to 1991 for fatalities, and from 1988 to 1991 for injuries.

It was found that Storm Data relies almost exclusively on newspapers for information on casualties due to lightning. A detailed examination of the flow of casualty information through newspapers to Storm Data revealed that information could be lost at several different stages in the reporting procedure.

Colorado Health Department death certificates and Colorado Hospital Association hospital discharge records were used as benchmarks to quantify the degree of completeness of the Storm Data records. It was found that Storm Data underreported deaths by 28% over the 12 years relative to the death certificate records, and that it underreported injuries requiring hospitalization by at least 42% compared to the hospital records. The authors suspect that the underreporting of injuries not needing hospitalization is even greater.

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