June 7, 2001

CONTACT: Ward Mullens






YPSILANTI - Eastern Michigan University Professor Carl Ojala and colleague Bob Ferrett have had their heads in the clouds for the past decade studying the weather.

They recently updated a study they began in 1990 and some of the results related to lightning could be shocking for Michiganders.

According to the study, Michigan ranks second in the nation, behind Florida, for combined lightning fatalities and injuries.

The two found that 2.4 deaths occur annually in Michigan as a result of lightning. In the past 40 years in Michigan, 94 persons have been killed by lightning - eight more than were killed by tornadoes in the state during the same period. Approximately 644 people were injured by lightning in Michigan during the same time span.

The study's results are timely, considering June 18-22, is National Lightning Week.

"You'd think Oklahoma, Alabama or Mississippi would be (ranked) second," said Ojala, an EMU geography professor with teaching and research interests in climatology and severe/unusual weather. "We're in second place. That's the astounding thing."

Ojala and Ferrett, director of EMU's Center for Instructional Computing, have come to some conclusions as to why Michigan ranks so high in lightning-related deaths and injuries. First, the state is bordered by 3,000 miles of Great Lakes coastline, making water activities more popular, and more dangerous, Ojala said.

"Everybody and their brother has a boat out in the water," said Ojala, who cites Michigan as a major recreational state. "They're out in their boats for sun or for fishing."

Second, multitudes of Little League, softball and soccer leagues mean thousands of children are outdoors playing sports, with many more parents and family members watching. Games often continue even when it's raining or thunder can be heard, Ojala said.

"Lightning is random, capricious and unpredictable," Ojala cautions. "The worst time to be outside in a thunderstorm is just before the rain starts and right after it ends."

He advises people to use the "thirty-thirty" rule. If you see lightning and hear thunder in 30 seconds or less, seek safe shelter.

"Don't resume your outdoor activity until 30 minutes after you see the last flash of lightning," he said.

Ferrett said the study shows that most lightning strikes occur between noon and 6 p.m., and just before midnight. July is the most likely month for lightning fatalities or injuries, with May and August close behind, he said.

For Ojala, a member of the Washtenaw County Emergency Management Response Force, the most frustrating aspect of trying to keep people safe from lightning is that they are apathetic and don't pay attention to warnings.

"Show a little respect for lightning," said Ferrett, who agreed. "If you can hear thunder or see lightning, get indoors."