Years ago a tremendous lightning bolt struck a white pine at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The powerful blast tore a vertical strip of bark from nearly the tree’s top to the ground. It was at least 25 feet long and about four inches wide. Fearing that the hit was fatal I called then Cedar Rapids City Forester Eric Faaborg who came out and examined the pine.
I was certain it had suffered the kiss of death, but Eric reassured me. “I don’t think the hit was fatal. Give it a few years and see what happens,” he remarked.
He was correct. By the next year the pine had partially healed. Now about 20 years later it is healthy and has grown considerably. The scar from the lightning wound is still visible but has faded.
The massive white oak that was struck by lightning near our home at Winding Pathways isn’t as lucky. Unlike the pine, the oak suffered extreme damage that extended all around the circumference of the tree. Four vertical strips of bark were torn off, and where bark remained it had been blown away from the tree’s wood. Essentially the oak has been girdled. We expect it to slowly die.
According to Cedar Rapids arborist, Todd Fagan, lightning damage often stresses a tree, causing it to go into decline and eventually die. It also opens the tree up to insects and diseases. However lightning damage isn’t always fatal. If in doubt he suggests contacting a certified arborist to evaluate the tree. Or you can simply leave it in place and remove if it dies.
Fagan added that it is possible to prevent lightning damage to special trees. “Often trees on golf courses are fitted with a copper wire that channels lightning harmlessly down into the ground. It’s expensive but can prevent the loss of an especially valuable tree,” he remarked.
To locate a certified arborist in your area access the website of the International Society of Aboriculture at and click on the appropriate link.
This stately Oak took a full bodies hit that vaporized the sap and blew off the bark in four places.
An enormous explosion brought us bolt upright in bed. 10:44 p.m. just after we’d fallen asleep on April 27th. . The blast was so powerful it knocked pictures off the wall shattering the frames and glass. A quick check revealed no other home damage and a few low rumbles assured us that the noise had been thunder created by a very close lighting strike and not a bomb.
A few days later we discovered a massive white oak about 300 feet from our home with its bark blown off in four different places and loose in others. The lightning’s heat and force vaporized the tree’s sap and enormous pressure blew the bark off. It’s hard to imagine that so much damage could happen in a two tenths of a second-long lightning bolt. The thing is, the tree top is lower than our home! Why did lightning strike there and not the house?
A lightning strike isn’t always a tree’s kiss of death. If only a narrow swath of bark is blown off it may recover. But we fear our magnificent oak was so damaged that its days are numbered.
The tree’s imminent death is good news for small songbirds, especially brown creepers that seek shelter between loose bark and a tree’s trunk. As the oak gradually deteriorates it will provide food and shelter for a host of insects and the woodpeckers that love dining on them. We anticipate a day when our pileated, red headed, red bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers nest in the old oak snag. Eventually it will topple over and over time return nutrients from rotting wood to the soil.
The distance from the lightning strike to the house is about a football field.
Lighting can be both lethal and sneaky. Every year it strikes about 25 million times in the United States and kills an average of 49 people. Many more humans are hit but survive, often with lingering physical problems. Ligntning is nothing to fool around with. As we learned on April 27th sometimes lightning strikes well before the main storm arrives and after it leaves. The safest place to be is inside a building away from windows, pipes, water, wires and landline telephones.
To stay safe, follow the 30-30 rule of thumb. When you first see lightning, begin to count “One Mississippi, two Mississippi….” until you hear thunder. If you hear thunder before you reach the number 30, lightning from the storm is in striking distance. Go inside! And, after the last rumble of thunder wait 30 minutes before venturing outside again.
An outstanding source of information, including many safety tips, is on the US Government’s website.