Seventy-nine people died this week in lightning strikes in India. Most of the dead lived in rural areas, and many were farmers. It’s the rainy season and storms are frequent this time of year. It might seem like an astonishing number in such a short time, but Indian government statistics point out that 2,000 people are killed by lightning strikes each year.
India’s population is about four times larger than that of the U.S., but about 2 people in 1 million die from lightning strikes in India; in the U.S., that figure is 0.3 per million.
The discrepancy holds for Europe, where lightning kills a tiny fraction of the population each year, about 0.2 people for every 1 million. Then there are parts of Asia and Africa, where lighting deaths can be 100 times higher. In Zimbabwe it’s around 20 per 1 million. In Malawi it’s 84 people per million. While lightning may seem to strike and kill at random, it’s mostly a problem of the poor.
As my colleague Rebecca J. Rosen has pointed out, the U.S. is a good example of how a country has gone from a relatively high rate of lightning deaths, to one of the lowest. One reason often pointed to is the move from farm to city. In 1900 about 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; by 2000 about 20 percent did. In step with that, lightning deaths decreased. This correlation is sometimes regarded as the cause of the decrease––and rural areas certainly are more dangerous when it comes to strikes––but in 100 years the U.S. population has jumped from 63 million to 323 million. There are more people everywhere, even in rural parts.