Researchers in South Africa and the UK are developing a way to help forensic teams determine whether people or animals have suffered a fatal lightning strike by examining their skeletal remains.
An article detailing their findings appears in the journal Forensic Science: Synergy.
“The identification of a death caused by lightning is usually done through marks left on the skin or damage to internal organs – and these tissues do not survive when bodies break down,” Dr. Nicholas Bacci, senior lecturer at the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University and lead author of the article, said in a statement.
« [Our work] … Can allow us to recognize accidental death versus homicide in cases where the cause is not apparent, while at the same time allowing us to construct a more complete picture of the true incidence of death due to lightning. “
For their paper, the scientists created an artificial lightning bolt in the lab and applied it to human bones taken from corpses that were donated to science.
“Using high power microscopy, we were able to see that there is a micro-fracture pattern in the bone caused by the passage of lightning current”, Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney, associate professor of the Research Group in Northumbria University forensic science, and Wits University’s Center for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, says.
“It takes the form of cracks that radiate from the center of bone cells or jump irregularly between clusters of cells. The general pattern of damage looks very different compared to other high energy traumas, such as those caused by burning fire. “
Dr Randolph-Quinney says that similar trauma has been observed in the skeletons of lightning-killed animals in nature and that the “trauma pattern” appears to be identical in human and animal bones.
The multidisciplinary project involved specialists from several fields, including physicists, forensic specialists and engineers.
Around 24,000 people are killed by lightning worldwide each year and, according to the study’s authors, African countries have some of the highest death rates. Animals, both wild and domesticated, can also be affected, with the US Department of Agriculture estimating that lightning is responsible for 80% of all accidental livestock deaths.
In Canada, about 2 to 3 people are killed by lightning each year and 80 more are injured, according to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety.
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