Somewhere in the sky, in the guts of a storm, lightning is forming.
Although it’s rare, with the odds of getting struck in your lifetime being roughly 1 in 12,000, every now and then a human will provide an attractive target for lightning bolts to unleash their energy. And of the roughly 500 people who are struck by lightning each year, about 90% survive.
Here’s what you should expect if you ever find yourself in the path of lightning.
How lightning forms
Although we’re still not sure what causes it, scientists believe that ice particles bumping together inside a cloud can cause an excess of negative charge to collect at the bottom of the cloud. This charge can be so powerful that it repels electrons, negatively charged particles, on the ground beneath it, causing the ground to become positively charged.
As an insanely strong electrical field roils in the cloud above, an intense attraction builds between the cloud and the ground. Lightning is the runaway force that discharges this field. It races toward the ground at nearly 300,000 kilometers per hour, striking the ground with an energy of 300 kV, up to 150 times more powerful than an industrial shock. The energy can even exceed the power of a nuclear reactor. When the lightning hits the ground, it causes a trail of plasma that lights the sky with those telltale zigzags of blueish white light that we see as lightning.
The first three milliseconds
A lot can happen in the three milliseconds it takes for a lightning bolt to course through your body.
As the lightning strikes and then exits your body, it will leave you with deep wounds, often accompanied with third degree burns. Your hair and clothing might singe or catch fire. Your clothes might even be shredded by the explosive force of the surrounding air being superheated to up to 50,000 degrees F (five times hotter than the surface of the sun).
If you happen to be wearing any metal objects, like necklaces or a piercings, they could channel the electric current, superheating and searing your skin. And if the lightning exits through your feet, the force could literally knock your shoes off.
Blood vessels bursting from the electric discharge and heat might create something called a Lichtenberg figure on your skin. This is a pattern of scars that branches out across your body like the limbs of a tree, likely tracing the path the electricity took as it travelled through you.
It’s not uncommon for the blast to rupture your eardrums, possibly leading to hearing loss. And, of course, you can expect a whole world of pain. One victim recalled it as “the pain of a thousand wasps stinging from within.”
In the wake of a lightning strike
Immediately after being struck, the disruption the lightning would have caused to your heart’s electrical rhythm could result in cardiac arrest, one of the leading causes of death in lightning strike victims. The shock could also cause seizures or respiratory arrest. If the electric current enters your skull, it could literally cook your brain, resulting in brain damage or putting you in a coma. The strike could even cause temporary or permanent paralysis.
But it doesn’t end there.
In the wake of a lightning attack, you might be faced with a lifetime of neurological afflictions for reasons that scientists still don’t fully understand. Some scientists believe that the lightning scrambles your internal circuitry, altering the behaviour of your cells. You might undergo personality changes, mood swings, and memory loss. It’s also possible that you will suffer from chronic pain and constant Parkinson’s-like muscle twitches.
In some cases, however, a lightning strike can lead to strange super talents. In a blog post for Psychology Today, University of Miami neuroscientist Berit Brogaard writes about an incident where an orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning developed an urge to learn to play the piano. He began to compose music he had mysteriously started hearing in his head since the strike. After a few months he abandoned his career as a surgeon and became a classical musician. This type of phenomenon baffles scientists.
One theory that Brogaard says is currently being tested is that cell death caused by being struck by lightning could cause a one-time flooding of the brain with neurotransmitters that are released from the dying neurons. This causes a rewiring of neurons, providing access to areas of the brain that were previously inaccessible.
But as cool as it would be, you shouldn’t count on that stray bolt of electricity turning you into a prodigy in one swift flash. The overwhelming majority of consequences of being struck by lightning are painful and debilitating, and could stay with you for the rest of your life.
While your chances of being struck by lightning are low, you can stay safe by tossing aside that fishing pole or golf club when you see clouds forming and heading indoors.