The phrase “lightning never strikes the same place twice” means when something really bad (or really good) happens, it won’t happen again. Of course, that isn’t always true. It’s also a myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice. In the short term, lightning is more likely to follow the same channel it has already used. Over the long term, lightning eventually revisits a place. On average, lightning re-strikes a location once every hundred years. It re-strikes more often in places that get a lot of lightning (e.g. Lake Maracaibo or the entire state of Florida) and less frequently in places that rarely see lightning.
Lightning Usually Strikes More Than Once
Lightning striking the same place is the norm rather than the exception. High-speed photography shows most cloud-to-ground lightning strikes consists of three or four strokes. Sometimes as many as 30 strikes occur. If you watch lightning during a thunderstorm, you can observe these re-strikes as a strobe effect.
The reason lightning typically uses the same channel over and over is because the electrical discharge follows the path of least resistance. The site where lightning strikes the ground is a positive-charged leader. Positive leaders on the ground decay more quickly than negative leaders in the clouds, but bidirectional leaders form when positive leaders decay. The bidirectional or recoil leaders try to re-ionize the network. When they do, a return stroke follows most of the original strike path. Repeat strikes are more common in cloud-to-ground lightning than in cloud-to-cloud strikes because recoil leaders don’t form on negative leaders.
Lightning Can Strike People Twice (or More)
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the chance of being struck by lightning in any single year is 1 in 700,000. The odds of being struck in your lifetime is 1 in 3,000. Of course, the odds don’t tell the whole story. Someone who avoids lightning has a lower lifetime risk than a person enjoys swimming at the beach during a thunderstorm! The chance of being struck twice by lightning is 1 in 9 million. While the chances of lightning striking a person twice are low, they are still higher than the odds of winning the Powerball.
Roy C. Sullivan is the Guinness World Record holder for surviving the most lightning strikes. Roy was struck seven times in his life. However, a South Carolina man, Melvin Roberts, was reportedly struck 10 times before his death. Neither man died from lightning — they took their own lives.
How to Avoid Being Struck by Lightning
You can reduce your chance of being struck once (or twice) by lightning by avoiding high-risk behaviors. Lightning is formed in thunderstorms, volcanoes, and dust storms. You’re not safe out in the open, under a tree or simple shelter, talking on a landline phone, using an electrical appliance, near metal plumbing, near wires, or on metal-reinforced concrete. You’re fairly safe enclosed inside metal, which acts as a Faraday cage, so long as you don’t touch the metal. Examples of safe places include buildings, airplanes, and automobiles.
- Cooray, Vernon (2014). An Introduction to Lightning. Springer Verlag. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-8938-7. ISBN 978-94-017-8937-0.
- Rakov, Vladimir A.; Uman, Martin A. (2003). Lightning: Physics and Effects. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521583275.
- Uman, Martin A. (1986). All About Lightning. Dover Publications, Inc. pp. 103–110. ISBN 978-0-486-25237-7.