Lightning stuns us into silence. It is a powerful force of nature that can have different effects on the environment. It can provide nitrogen for the soil, and it can shatter trees into splintery pieces. So, which trees are most likely to get struck by lightning?
In truth, tall trees like pine and oak trees are at the most risk of getting struck by lightning due to their impressive height. High-water content trees like ash trees and willow trees are very water absorbent and, thus, more apt to conduct and attract lightning strikes.
Today, we will be talking about lightning and the probability of your trees being struck by lightning. It is essential to understand lightning, how it affects your trees when hit, and how to prevent damage so that you can give your tree the best chance for survival.
Factors That Affect The Chances of a Strike
Lightning does not simply strike the tallest object in the area. Taller objects have a higher chance of being struck than shorter objects. However, it is a lot more complicated than that.
According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association that expanded over four years, U.S. firefighters responded to 22,000 fires that had started due to lightning. In addition, wildfires in federal and state wildlands accounted for over 9,000 lightning-caused fires.
The chance of a lightning strike depends on the striking density of your area and the height of the objects there. The likelihood of an object being hit depends on its size, shape, and isolation.
There is a myth that seeking shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm keeps you safe. This is absolutely false. Trees are especially susceptible to lightning strikes, and being near one during a thunderstorm is extremely dangerous.
The only way to determine in which area lightning will strike is to look at the thunderstorm overhead. Lighting will strike anywhere from underneath the storm to three miles out from it.
Besides that, strike density and the characteristics of the objects within that strike zone are the only ways to estimate where lightning will hit.
What is Strike Density?
Strike density is the number of lightning strikes within a given period within a square area of land. This is how scientists determine the probability of lightning hitting particular objects.
When it comes to trees, experts have discovered that trees are hit more or less according to the strike density zone that they are in.
A study by the University of Georgia found that a lightning density of about 18 ground strikes per square mile per year had little difference in tree risk—or risk of being struck by lightning based on tree height. When the strike density lowers, the size of the tree becomes a more significant factor in the likelihood of a strike on it.
However, evidence has proven that regardless of the lightning strike zone and the height of objects around the trees, certain trees are still more likely to be hit by others.
How Does Lighting Affect Trees?
Trees are especially vulnerable to lightning because they tend to be very tall (go figure.) They contain the necessary moisture and sap to conduct electricity better than they would through the air.
Lightning will always take the path of least resistance, and in many cases, that happens to be a tree.
Naturally, we imagine our trees lighting on fire, shattering their branches, or crashing onto our houses when lightning strikes them. But lightning can be damaging our trees underground as well.
When lightning strikes a tree, the electricity travels from the trunk to the root system. This can cause irreparable damage to the tree that may not even be seen aboveground.
If this happens, a tree usually has a 50% chance of restoring its root system and regrowing leaves the following year.
Next, you’ll be wondering which trees have the highest risk of being struck by lightning. Below is a list of those trees from the lowest risk of the group to the highest.
Which Trees Are Most Susceptible to Lightning?
While not made of pure metal, 5 species of trees are susceptible to lightning. Most likely, if you live in a city or suburban area, you probably haven’t seen lightning strike a tree.
But, it happens in nature all the time!
Pine Trees Attract Lightning Due to Their Height
There are approximately 111 species of pine trees worldwide, although the number varies by scientists. Pines are drier than other trees because they live in arid climates, but they are very hardy. They are found only in the northern hemisphere.
Lightning is attracted to pines because they are characteristically very tall. However, pines are not very strong against lightning strikes and will only survive part of the time when struck. Pines have a very high resin content in their wood, which means it conducts electricity better.
Because of this, pines are more likely to explode and be irreparably damaged from lightning strikes… yikes!
Ash Tree Moisture Level Attracts Lightning Strikes
Ash trees are deciduous and can be found in Asia, North America, and Europe. Most of the species are short, but the lumber-producing ones can grow very tall, up to 120 feet. There are approximately 65 different species of ash in the world.
However, ash trees are vulnerable to lightning strikes. Often, ash trees near water will have a higher level of moisture in their root system, which means more severe damage in the case of a lightning strike.
These trees are unique because they are beneficial to both land and water environments. They help to maintain riverbanks and provide shelter for a variety of animals. Since they absorb lightning strikes – they can help conduct electricity away from other vulnerable objects!
Willow Tree Moisture & Root System Attract Lightning
Willows are gorgeous and stately trees that originated in China but have grown throughout the northern hemisphere.
Some types of willows reach heights of 70 feet tall! It’s no wonder that they are more susceptible to lightning than other trees. Combined with a higher water level than most trees, willows are frequently struck.
Another characteristic of the willow tree is the extensive and invasive root system. Willows are notorious for entangling sewer lines and destroying sidewalks. Combined with their high water retention, willow trees are excellent conductors for electricity and are prone to lightning strikes.
When struck, willows can experience devastating trauma to the root system that makes them unlikely to recover.
Luckily, root damage doesn’t always happen when a tree is struck. Most of the time, it will only injure the immediate area that is hit.
Poplar Tree Height Attract Lightning
The poplar tree is native to most of the northern hemisphere but thrives in warmer weather. They can be a pain to homeowners because they clog drains and damage septic systems.
However, they are beautiful additions to yards, as long as they are planted in the right place.
Poplars have an extremely short lifespan and will only live to about fifty years.
Despite their brief lives, poplars grow very, very tall, reaching heights up to 165 feet. This makes them prime candidates for a lightning strike. While they don’t retain water like willow or ash trees, poplar trees will usually be closer to the sky than any other tree.
The tulip poplar, for example, will often rise above the tree canopy of a forest and stand alone as the tallest object in the area.
They are very vulnerable to lightning!
Oak Trees Are Susceptible to Lightning Strikes
Oak is commonly known as the tree that is most likely to be struck by lightning! This partly has to do with the fact that oaks are notoriously taller than other types of trees.
A mature oak tree can grow to reach 148 feet!
Oaks first appeared on the planet 65 million years ago, and they can grow to be over 1,000 years old. They are very strong, and their lumber is used for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, they are decreasing in number due to deforestation.
Read more about oaks in our article Amazing Ways Oak Trees Help the Environment!
Besides their obvious height advantage over other trees, oaks are struck by lightning more than other trees because their moisture content is higher. According to research from the Iowa State University Library, Oak tees were twice as likely to get struck by lightning than popular, the next most lightning-prone tree.
The combination of height and moisture makes the oak tree likely to be struck by lightning when given the proper situation.
Refer to our other article: The Ways Oak Trees Cause Damage and How to Prevent Them, for some advice on what to do if your oak tree is hit by lightning!
3 Common Myths About Lightning And Trees
There are a few myths that are associated with lightning that should be dispelled for your safety!
Myth #1: Standing Underneath a Tree is The Safest Place to be During a Thunderstorm
Fact: This is false. Trees are struck by lightning very often because they are tall and have high moisture content. The electricity will travel through the tree into the ground.
Myth #2: Lightning Only Strikes an Object Once Per Storm
Fact: This is untrue! Your tree could be struck multiple times during a storm. Once a tree is struck, it will most likely break and may not be as good of a lightning receptor as before. However, it can still get struck again.
Myth #3: When Lightning Strikes Trees, it Only Affects The Tree
Fact: When lightning strikes a tree, the electricity moves through the trunk and into its root system. Objects touching the roots like metal pipes can be damaged. There can also be a side flash, which is when electricity jumps from one object to another.
Are There Any Trees Less Susceptible to Being Struck?
Yes, there are! Some trees are shorter and have a lower moisture content, which makes them less likely to be struck. This does not, however, completely eliminate the chance of them being hit.
One characteristic of trees that determines their efficiency of electricity conduction is their oil content. The higher the level of oil, the less effective the tree is at conducting electricity. For that reason, beech and birch trees have some of the smallest chances of being struck by lightning.
They are typically very short and have a higher oil content than the trees that surround them in their native habitat.
If you have a birch or beech tree on your property, then you now know they have a less likely chance of being struck by lightning, but remember that it can always happen anytime there is a thunderstorm. Lightning will strike anything which can connect it to the ground, which all trees can.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Trees From Lightning?
If you live in an area with a high strike density, it would be very beneficial to protect your trees from lightning damage! The Agrilife Extension of Texas A&M University suggests installing a lightning protection system on trees that are vulnerable on your property.
A lightning protection system contains a series of copper wires and ground rods that redirects the path of electricity from the air into the ground instead of hitting the tree. They are extremely effective at protecting your tree from lightning damage.
Lightning protection systems are also beneficial as protection to neighboring structures. You should install these systems on trees near your house because it reduces the chance of a “side flash.”
A side flash is when lightning strikes a taller object, and then residual electricity jumps to a nearby object. This can be very dangerous. This is why it is important to stay away from trees during a thunderstorm.
It is extremely important to protect your most valuable trees. While it won’t be cost-effective to protect every single tree on your property (that could be exorbitant on a wooded property), protecting the trees with the most historical significance is a better option.
This means determining the oldest, largest, and most established trees on your property before choosing how many trees to protect.
Make sure to contact a professional arborist to properly install and maintain protection systems for your trees.
What Do I Do if My Tree Has Been Struck?
When a tree is struck by lightning, a number of things can happen.
First, the water in the cells is heated to boiling, causing steam to emit from the bark. This, in turn, can cause the bark to explode, sometimes penetrating deep into the tree and causing irreparable damage.
If your tree is struck by lightning and catches fire, call 911 immediately.
Even if your tree doesn’t catch fire, the damage can be fatal to your tree. The extent of the damage is largely dependent on the level of water in your tree and where that water is located. Trees with moisture deep under the bark will be more likely to explode when struck by lightning.
The first thing you should do when your tree is hit by lightning is to prune the branches that have been hit and remove any bark that is hanging off the tree’s trunk. You should then begin fertilizing the tree and making sure it has sufficient water.
Check out our guide on the best fertilizers for your oak tree here.
This is when you have to wait. Give your tree 2-6 months to check for signs of severe damage or stress. Usually, trees are very hardy and can repair themselves. It is only after a few months that you can see the extent of the damage.
Unfortunately, the electric shock may not be the thing that kills your tree. Sometimes the damage from the lightning exposes your tree’s inner layers to the elements. This leaves it vulnerable to the surrounding environment, disease, and pests.
The forces of nature are nothing to joke about. Lightning is extremely dangerous, and you should take every precaution to protect yourself from it.
Luckily, you can protect your trees as well. Contacting your local arborist and discussing a lightning protection system for your trees is the best option. They will help you decide which trees to protect and how to tend to ones that have been hit.
After reading this article, you should be well-versed on how lightning affects our trees, which trees are most likely to be struck, and how to protect our trees from lightning damage. If you live in an area with a lot of thunderstorms, consider giving your most precious trees the ultimate protection!
Ahrens, Marty. “Lightning Fires and Lightning Strikes.” National Fire Protection Agency, NFPA, June 2013, https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/US-Fire-Problem/Lightning-Fires-and-Lightning-Strikes.
Gora, Evan M., et al. “A Mechanistic and Empirically Supported Lightning Risk Model for Forest Trees.” Besjournals, British Ecological Society, 20 May 2020.
Clatterbuck, Wayne, et al. “Understanding Lightning & Associated Tree Damage.” Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas A&M University, 2020, https://agrilife.org/treecarekit/after-the-storm/understanding-lightning-associated-tree-damage.