The Effects of Thunder & Lightning on Humans & Nature

By Jane McDonaugh; Updated April 25, 2017
Stay indoors during a lightning storm.

Lightning and thunder have occurred as natural phenomenons since the dawning of time. Scientists have since been attempting to understand how thunder and lightning work hand in hand, as well as their effects on humans and nature. Our better understanding of these phenomena have led to better protection from the potentially destructive effects.

Lightning Effects on Humans

Whereas industrial shock carries 20 to 63 kilovolts, a lightning strike delivers a whopping 300 kilovolts, according to the NASA Science website. Electrical currents from lightning strikes have a shorter duration than industrial shocks, averaging a few milliseconds per strike. When a human gets exposed to a lightning strike, an external flashover occurs wherein the electrical current passes over the surface of the body. This can result in burns, mostly in the upper and lower body, specifically the head, shoulders and neck. Injury can also occur from the lightning bolt's making the victim fall or throwing him through the air. Immediate death from a lightning strike is usually attributed to cardiac or cardiopulmonary arrest. Nine thousand seven people have been killed via lightning strikes between 1940 and 2003, according to Michael Largo, author of "Final Exits: The Illustrated History of How We Die."

Lightning in Nature

Lightning has a positive electrical charge, traveling between the base of a thunder cloud and the point of contact on Earth in approximately 30 seconds. The process of lightning strikes' attraction to specific objects is not yet fully understood by scientists, yet they know lightning tends to strike tall, free-standing structures, such as radio towers, telephones poles and trees, much more often than open ground. About 20 million lightning strikes hit the United States each year, according to Largo.

Thunder: Sound Effects

Thunder occurs as an acoustical effect of high temperature and pressure during a lightning storm. The great change in pressure affects the human ears, causing them to hear thunder. The highest pressure in a storm happens a few centimeters away from the origin of the lightning strike, causing a rumbling noise.

Thunder: Mechanical Effect

The pressure which results in thunder doesn't just have acoustical effects but mechanical ones. The high pressure of these lightning strikes can cause earthly damage, especially to metal objects. The pressure can be even more destructive when lightning strikes a small, closed area, such as a crack in a wall or a capillary in a tree. When pressure gets high enough and passes through tree capillary, the tree can explode.

About the Author

Jane McDonaugh has been a professional writer and editor since 2010, with expertise in literature, television, film and humor. She is a freelance reader for Author Solutions Film and has held many other positions in television and film production. McDonaugh holds a Bachelor of Arts in television production and English from Emerson College.