Illinois State Water Survey - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

State Climatologist Office for Illinois

Lightning in Illinois

Dr. Jim Angel, State Climatologist

On average, lightning causes more deaths in the U.S. than tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes. One study puts lightning deaths in the U.S. at 7,741 between 1940 and 1981. And some research suggests that these numbers may be too low by 30 to 50 percent. Illinois experiences about 2-3 deaths and 8 serious injuries per year (again probably too low).

Where do they occur?

A recent NOAA study[1] found that about one fourth of these incidences occurred in open fields, ball parks, and parks. Other categories included near trees (14 percent), water-related activities such as boating, fishing, and swimming (8 percent), golfing (5 percent), around heavy machinery (3 percent), and using the telephone (2 percent). Forty percent of the reports gave no location. 

When do they occur?

The months with the most incidents are June, July, and August. The days of the week with the most incidents are Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Most of the incidents occur from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The majority of lightning incidents involve only one victim (91 percent of the time).

Who gets hurt?

Eighty-five percent of lightning victims are children and young men (ages 10-35) usually engaged in recreation or outside work. Twenty percent of lightning victims die and another 70 percent receive serious injuries. Only 10 percent of lightning victims escape with less serious injuries.

What can you do?

The National Lightning Safety Institute[2] suggests that when you first see lightning or hear thunder, suspend outdoor activities and seek shelter. A metal vehicle or a substantial building is a safe place. Wait until 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or thunder before resuming outdoor activities.

A surprisingly large percentage of the deaths and injuries occur in either the first or last few strikes of a thunderstorm.  If you are outdoors avoid water, high ground and open spaces. This includes such places as swimming pools, lakes, open fields, parks, picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, light poles, metal fences, and bleachers (wood or metal). If you are caught in the open, crouch down with your feet together and cover your ears to minimize hearing damage from thunder. If you are indoors stay away from doors and windows. Do not use the telephone and stay away from electronic equipment (computers, stereos, television, etc.) and from plumbing (metal pipes can conduct electricity). 

Lightning victims have a good chance of survival with timely medical treatment. They do not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. Call 911 or send for help immediately and apply the appropriate First Aid procedures if you are qualified to do so.

Lightning should be taken just as seriously as other weather hazards. Many of the deaths and injuries are due to misinformation and inappropriate behavior during thunderstorms. However, following the precautions mentioned here can reduce the danger of lightning.


[1] Curran, Holle, and Lopez: 1997, Lightning Fatalities, Injuries, and Damage Reports in the United States, 1959-1994, NOAA Tech. Memo. No. NWS SR-193, October 1997.

[2] National Lightning Safety Institute,