It wasn’t even sprinkling when a lightning bolt slammed into Herasmo Palafosa as he played dominoes, chatting with friends under a mango tree one moment, a lifeless heap the next.
The bolt “was the first one that came down,” said his aunt, Maria Lara Ventura. “It was a flash, like a ray of bright sunshine.”
Four domino players fell to the ground, Lara recalled. One of them was her 34-year-old nephew, the only one who’d been sitting on a metal chair. She and others standing nearby threw water to get him to come to. But then they noticed the severity of his injuries.
“The whole top of his head was burned off. He fell dead right away,” she said.
In this sugarcane region of Mexico’s coastal Jalisco state, lightning deaths abound. Indeed, annual deaths from lightning strikes in Mexico have oscillated in recent decades from 360 to around 100, far more than the 23 people who died in the United States last year, the lowest year on record. Many of the Mexican victims are rural dwellers, perishing on soccer fields, at school, tending farm plots or while riding horses.
The same story plays out across the Earth’s tropics and subtropics, where those toiling on plantations or rice paddies fall victim to the multiple lightning bolts that hit the ground every second. Scientists estimate that 6,000 to 24,000 people perish from lightning strikes each year, and 10 times that many fall injured.
It’s a humanitarian disaster that goes largely unheeded because the fatalities come in a trickle. Neither hurricanes nor tornadoes claim as many lives.
“The onesies, twosies and threesies seldom make it into the newspaper,” said Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, a retired professor of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago who founded the African Centre for Lightning and Electromagnetism, a nonprofit agency aimed at reducing casualties from lightning.
Developed nations such as the United States – with their better construction, education campaigns and ubiquitous weather reports – have seen lightning fatalities fall. But the rates remain stubbornly high elsewhere, a result of swelling global populations and masses of rural people vulnerable to lightning at all times.
“You have people living in grass-roofed huts that are not lightning-safe. Then they go and work in labor-intensive manual agriculture outside picking tea or planting rice, things like that. So day and night, they are not safe, and there’s no easy way to make them safe,” said Ronald L. Holle, a meteorologist based in Arizona who’s written extensively about global lightning fatalities.
Thunderstorms are frequent around Villa Purificacion, which was founded by Spanish settlers in 1533. Nearly everyone here has a story about a lightning death.
Adan Guzman planned a fishing outing with a friend, Efrain Garcia, one summer day last year. When a storm came up, the two went into a rural house. Garcia grabbed the metal bars of a window as he gazed outside. A bolt struck.
“It looked like the house was on fire,” recalled Guzman, a 33-year-old musician. “It threw us all to the ground.”
Garcia died within minutes. The others were stunned but largely unhurt.
Direct lightning strikes are rarely the cause of death, experts said. Only 3 to 5 percent of fatalities are people who received direct hits. Another 3 to 5 percent are people who touched or held on to objects such as hard-wired telephones, fencing, metal bars or other objects carrying a charge from lightning.
The rest are killed by phenomena such as “side splashes” – when a lightning bolt hits a tree or building, then “jumps” to a victim – or arcing, when lightning hits the ground and spreads current, or when human bodies channel “upward streamers” of electricity that rise to meet a downward bolt. Concussive blasts from lightning can also injure and kill.
“There are pictures of lightning hitting trees. There’ll be a furrow across the ground a foot deep, just trenched, with the rocks blown out of it,” Holle said.
Lightning essentially is a giant discharge of electricity between clouds or from cloud to ground. Lightning can contain 100 million to 1 billion electrical volts, and it can heat the air around it by as much as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
In countries such as the United States, 90 percent of victims survive their encounters with lightning, usually because of rapid medical treatment for heart stoppage.
Elsewhere, mortality rates are far higher – though few reliable statistics exist. Among regions with the most annual lightning strikes are central Africa around Lake Victoria, Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo region and parts of Southeast Asia.
High fatality rates don’t always correspond to the areas with the greatest density of lightning strikes in a country, as three scientists in Mexico determined.
The scientists studied government databases and found that 7,362 people in Mexico had suffered “death by lightning stroke” in the 32-year period that ended in 2011. Most deaths came in rural areas, and the majority of victims were males in their teens.
“These deaths are almost inevitable,” said one of the scientists, Beata Kucienska, of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Farmers don’t have any way to protect themselves. The only way to really protect themselves is inside a concrete home or in a car. And these farmers have neither concrete homes nor cars.”
A surgeon who’s worked in this region for more than half a century, Dr. Nabor De Niz Dominguez, said he’d treated several lightning-strike victims.
“They run and hide under a tree, and that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Fortunately for Mexican athletes, lawmakers have enacted legislation demanding a halt to soccer matches when lightning is seen.
Still, although a referee had whistled a suspension, a 29-year-old player in the Yucatan capital of Merida, Carlos May, was felled by lightning Sept. 14 and died. Hospital personnel revived a second player.
Lightning may increase with global warning, according to Colin Price, an atmospheric sciences expert at Tel Aviv University.
“In the models, they do predict a 10 percent increase in lightning activity with each 1 degree centigrade warming,” Price said.
Price said he wasn’t optimistic about reducing lightning deaths: “Populations are increasing. We’ve got more people out there working in the fields.”
An education campaign in the United States carries a simple slogan: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” Most buildings in the United States with electrical wiring and plumbing – which provide conduits into the ground – give safety to those inside.
Lightning can strike far from menacing clouds, though.
“Lightning is a very complex phenomenon,” Cooper said. “We had one lightning strike around the Dallas-Fort Worth area that went for 170 miles outside the cloud and had four down strikes within that horizontal traverse.”
In much of the developing world, cellphone alerts for bad weather aren’t widespread, and wooden or mud housing offers no lightning protection. Lightning rod systems are beyond most budgets. Moreover, superstitions linking lightning deaths to witchcraft sometimes prevail.
On the Kenyan highland tea plantations, Cooper said, if lightning strikes a harvester, “the workers scatter, and they won’t come back for a week or two. By then, your tea crop is shot.”
In Latin America, many offer a religious explanation for lightning deaths.
“God knows who to call, who to take at any given moment,” said the Rev. Fernando Arias Contreras, a parish priest in Villa Purificacion.
Kucienska said she and her colleagues had created a pamphlet for primary schools titled “Threat from the Sky.” It offers safety tips. But she said the scientists had had trouble getting funding to print the pamphlets, a sign of the issue’s low priority.
“It’s an invisible problem,” she said.