Using skeletons to better understand fatal lightning strikes

·2 min read
Using skeletons to better understand fatal lightning strikes

Researchers from South Africa and the UK are developing a way to help forensic teams determine if people or animals fell victim to a fatal lightning strike by examining their skeletal remains.

A paper detailing their findings appears in the journal Forensic Science: Synergy.

"Identifying a fatality caused by lightning strike is usually done though marks left on the skin, or damage to the internal organs -- and these tissues don't survive when bodies decompose," Dr. Nicholas Bacci, Lecturer in the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University and lead author of the paper says in a statement.

"[Our work] ... may allow us to recognize accidental death versus homicide in cases where cause is not apparent, whilst at the same time allowing us to build a more complete picture of the true incidence of lightning fatalities."

For their paper, scientists created artificial lightning in the laboratory and applied it to human bones extracted from cadavers that were donated to science.

"Using high-powered microscopy we were able to see that there is a pattern of micro-fracturing within bone caused by the passage of lightning current," Dr. Patrick Randolph-Quinney, Associate Professor from the Forensic Science Research Group at Northumbria University, and the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at Wits University, says.

"This takes the form of cracks which radiate out from the centre of bone cells, or which jump irregularly between clusters of cells. The overall pattern of damage looks very different when compared to other high energy trauma, such as that caused by burning in fire."

Dr. Randolph-Quinney says similar trauma was observed in the skeletons of animals killed by lightning in the wild and that the "pattern of trauma" appears to be identical in human and animal bone.

The multi-disciplinary project brought in specialists from several fields, including physicists, forensic specialists, and engineers.

About 24,000 people are killed by lightning annually worldwide and, according to the study's authors, African countries have some of the highest fatality rates. Animals, both wild and domesticated can also be affected, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating lightning strikes are responsible for up 80 per cent of all accidental livestock deaths.

In Canada, an estimated 2-3 people are killed by lightning each year, and an additional 80 are injured, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Thumbnail image courtesy: angkhan/ Getty Images Pro.

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