And at a time when the number and severity of thunderstorms and lightning strikes from climate change is increasing, that’s valuable information.

When it is suspected that a lightning strike has killed someone, the forensic pathologist determines the cause of death by looking for certain traces that lightning has left on the skin and organs of the deceased. However, when a person is skeletonized, these soft tissues are gone. And that means it cannot be established with certainty that lightning was actually the cause of death. Researchers are now changing that. Because in a new study they have unraveled how you can deduce from a skeleton whether someone has indeed been a victim of lightning.

The numbers

The chance of being struck by lightning is quite small. Despite this, this happens to some unsuspecting people anyway. In South Africa, for example, more than 250 people are killed by lightning every year. Worldwide, a lightning strike kills about 24,000 people every year.

According to the researchers, it is very important at this time to clarify how many lives lightning strikes claim. It is a real problem, especially in African countries. At the moment, many wild animals, livestock and people there do not survive a lightning strike. “It plays a role in the death of many people every year, especially in countries like South Africa, Zambia and Uganda,” said researcher Ken Nixon. In addition, scientists predict that climate change will increase the number and severity of thunderstorms and lightning strikes. And that means that even more people may be hit and killed by lightning.


In a new study, therefore, researchers decided to study the phenomenon more closely. Because can you only read from the skeleton whether someone has been a victim of a lightning strike? The researchers fabricated artificial lightning in the lab, which was then aimed directly at human bone. They then examined the damage left behind. “Using powerful microscopy, we discovered a pattern of tiny fractures in the bone caused by lightning,” said study researcher Patrick Randolph-Quinney. “It looks like cracks radiating from the center of bone cells. These traces left behind look very different from other high-energy trauma, such as those caused by fire or fire.”


The researchers compared their lab results to a poor giraffe that had been naturally struck by lightning. Remarkably, the pattern turned out to be identical, although the microstructure of human bone is different from that of animal bone. “This is the breakthrough we’ve been looking for in forensic lightning pathology,” said Randolph-Quinney.

The top photo shows undamaged bone. In photo two you can see the traces of artificially obtained lightning, left on human bone. The bottom photo shows the bone of a giraffe that was killed naturally by lightning. Image: Patrick Randolph-Quinney | Forensic Science Research Group, Northumbria University and Tanya Augustine & Nicholas Bacci, School of Anatomical Sciences | WITS UNIVERSITY

It means that the researchers have developed an effective method for deducing only from a skeleton whether someone has been a victim of a lightning strike. “Our study is the first to reveal the unique traces of lightning damage deep within the human skeleton,” said study researcher Nicholas Bacci. “This allows us to reveal whether someone has been killed by lightning, even when only dry bone remains. This gives us a more complete picture of how often lightning strikes claim lives.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings will also help to better protect people who live in areas where lightning kills the most. “Ultimately, our goal is to make built and rural areas safer,” Nixon said. “We hope to bring life-saving knowledge to people around the world who are increasingly endangered by this natural phenomenon.”