lightning strike at night hitting a tree in Dayton, OH

As recent storms in the Dayton area have already shown, thunderstorms and lightning can cause a lot of damage. While some tree damage and debris from strong winds can be prevented through proper pruning and keeping your tree healthy, lightning can strike and damage any tree, even healthy, well-maintained ones.

We often get asked about lightning damage to trees so in this article we answer the most common questions.

  • What exactly happens when lightning strikes a tree?
  • Can lightning strikes and the associated tree damage be prevented?
  • How do you know if your tree has sustained a lightning strike?
  • What should you do to help your tree if it has been hit by lightning?

Why Are Trees Struck By Lightning?

While we know that the best option during a thunderstorm is to take cover (but not under a tree!), trees, being literally rooted to the ground, don’t have that option. Their tall stature and internal moisture attract lightning because they conduct electricity better than the air around them.

Trees are more likely to be hit by lightning if they are:

  • In an open area
  • Near a body of water
  • On the edge of a forest or a group of trees
  • On a mountainside or hilltop
  • Growing close to a building
  • Decorated with strings of electric lights

What Happens When a Tree is Struck?

When a tree is struck by a bolt of lightning, it comes into immediate contact with something that is six times hotter than the sun – lightning reaches temperatures up to 54 thousand degrees (Fahrenheit).

For some trees, this bolt of fire is too much for them, and the entire tree shatters or catches on fire. But sometimes, the tree is hardly affected at all. It all depends on a few things.

If the outer layer of bark is soaked (for example, from rain), lightning might travel through the wet bark into the ground, sparing the tree from most of the damage.

If lightning is able to reach the inner layers of the tree, the tree’s cells can begin to boil. Steam from the boiling water then explodes, dramatically cracking the bark or even causing it to fall off.

In some diseased or rotting trees, moisture is concentrated deep within the tree. In these situations, the force of the superheated steam can cause the entire tree to explode, with pieces of the tree flying in every direction.

How to tell if a tree has been hit by lightning

If you notice any of the following after a thunderstorm, your tree has probably been struck by lightning.

  • The tree is on fire
  • It has shattered pieces of bark
  • The trunk has some burned or charred areas

Although some signs of a lightning strike are obvious, others are more subtle. Often, the damage is internal and can only be spotted by a trained arborist.

Whether the damage is evident or you just suspect that your tree has been struck, contact us for an evaluation and treatment options.

Can a Tree Survive a Lightning Strike?

Not all trees that have been hit by lightning are doomed. Many can survive, especially if only one side of the tree shows signs of damage. However, all trees will be stressed after lightning damage, so prepare to give your tree a little extra care and attention for a while.

Prune out any obviously damaged or burned branches and remove any hanging pieces of bark that can’t be put back into place. Consider providing supplemental fertilization to support new growth (but not too much!) and make sure that your tree has sufficient water to keep growing strongly.

Keep a close eye on the tree for the next few months. Wait at least 2 to 6 months before any corrective pruning or before removing the tree. Most often, it’s not the strike that kills the tree but the resulting injury that exposes the tree to diseases and insects. Schedule a consultation with a professional arborist to evaluate the tree and develop a plant health care treatment to prevent pests from entering the tree via the injury.

With proper care and maintenance, and if the injury is not too intense, lightning-struck trees can survive for many years. Some trees have even survived being struck more than once.

How to Prevent Lightning Strikes To Your Trees

As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure.” Lightning protection systems can be installed to protect especially valuable or vulnerable trees, as well as nearby property. These systems protect trees by slowly releasing the electrical charge and letting it dissipate before it becomes dangerous to the tree.

A lightning protection system consists of an air terminal placed in the top of the tree, a copper cable conductor that runs down the tree trunk to the ground, and a ground-rod system placed a safe distance away from the tree. If lightning should strike, the system directs the electrical current along the cable and away from the tree where it can safely dissipate into the ground.

If you have trees that you think may be vulnerable to lightning strikes or that you want to protect, consult with one of our arborists at Arbor Experts about options to minimize or eliminate lightning damage.

Don’t Forget to Take Precautions For Yourself and Your Family

The National Weather Service says, “when thunder roars, head indoors,” and they have good reason for saying that. Lightning kills dozens of people in the United States each year, and often times those deaths are preventable. Ohio has the fourth highest occurrence of deaths by lightning in the entire country, so be sure you know what to do when thunderstorms appear.

Brush up on other lightning safety tips by reading this brochure from the National Weather Service, or check out this advice from the Ohio Committee For Severe Weather Awareness. One of the people killed by lightning in 2018 was a seven-year-old playing under a tree, so be sure that your family is aware of the risks and knows what to do when thunderstorms are nearby.

Stay safe!