Wits unit aims to demystify lightning


9 January 2014

About 500 people are killed by lightning strikes every year in South Africa – and scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg are determined to lower that number.

The lightning research team, which the university formed in mid-1960s, are “really pushing the boundaries of what is known about lightning deaths and injuries”, National Geographic says on its website.

“South Africa has known about the risks of lightning since 1973, when we introduced a ‘risk analysis process’ that stated exactly how dangerous lightning could be,” said engineer Andrew Dickson. “But we are still somehow accepting around 500 deaths a year.”

The group of electrical engineers, anthropologists and biomedical experts are conducting experiments to understand how the human body reacts to a lightning strike, the website reports.

Their findings could help doctors treat victims more effectively and improve education about lightning safety, helping to prevent casualties and even deaths.

“This work has potential to give scientists a way to look at the complex human body in a very different way,” Patrick Randolph-Quinney, a forensic anthropologist at Wits, is quoted as saying. He hopes emerging research will help doctors better treat lightning injuries and assist forensics investigators in pinpointing the cause of death from a lightning strike.

People in the rural areas of South Africa are particularly vulnerable as they work outdoors and the poor infrastructure provides minimal protection. There is also a lack of education about the dangers of lightning, the magazine says.

Other work being done at the university highlighted by the magazine includes:

  • Injuries: electrical engineering graduate student Harry Lee is comparing the electrical conductivity of 56 different human tissues to find out why some parts of the body are damaged more than others.
  • Education: the group at Wits is compiling lightning safety rules to help educate the public. Two engineering students have created a computer game aimed at primary school pupils on how to be safe when there is a thunderstorm.

“We don’t live in America,” Ken Nixon, a Wits university electrical engineer said. “[The popular rule] ‘when thunder roars, go indoors’ isn’t going to work because for many, indoors isn’t a sturdy building. So the way we approach these education tactics is going to be fundamentally different.”

SAinfo reporter and National Geographic