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Forensic Magzine November 24, 2021: How Forensic Science is Unlocking the Mysteries of Fatal Lightning Strikes

Scientists have found the smoking gun in forensic lightning pathology that will help develop life-saving knowledge to address the lethal effects of the increasing number and severity of thunderstorms and lightning strikes due to global climate change.

New research by scientists from South Africa and the UK could help forensic teams understand whether people or animals were the victims of fatal lightning strikes, based solely upon an analysis of their skeletons. Their study is published in the journal Forensic Science International: Synergy.

Climate change is increasing and there is evidence to suggest the incidence and severity of thunderstorms and lightning strikes could increase. Sadly, fatal strikes are common on wild animals, livestock, and people—with African countries having some of the highest fatality rates in the world.

In South Africa, more than 250 people are killed annually by lightning, whereas 24, 000 people worldwide die each year. When a lightning death is suspected, the forensic pathologist determines cause of death by looking for signs of lightning-trauma to skin and organs of the deceased. However, when the body is skeletonized, soft tissues are absent and cause of death by lightning cannot be attributed.

This new research provides a tool to investigate cause of death when skeletonized remains are recovered as part of accident or death investigation.

“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,” said Nicholas Bacci, Lecturer in the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University and lead author of the paper. “Our work is the first research that identifies unique markers of lightning damage deep within the human skeleton and allows us to recognise lightning when only dry bone survives. This may allow us to recognise 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."

The research was undertaken as collaboration between specialists in forensic anthropology, anatomy, lightning physics, and micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in South Africa, Northumbria University in the UK, and the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA). more

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