Trees and Lightning

Results from a 10-year investigation of lightning and thunderstorm activity surrounding Atlanta identified increases in thunderstorm intensity, rainfall, and lightning over and downwind of the city center during the summer months of June, July, and August.

Mace Bentley, Tony Stallins, and Walker Ashley, “The Atlanta Thunderstorm Effect” (2010)

Lightning is not something to be taken lightly. In 2020, Georgia ranked second only to Florida for number of homeowners insurance claims due to lightning losses (4,686).

In Atlanta, lightning is common. The urban heat island effect, so-called “canyon” winds (i.e., the lifting of warm, humid air over the city center), and air pollution combine to increase the frequency of lightning events and strikes. Flash “densities” in the northeast quadrant of the city are as high as those found along the state’s coastline (Leanna Shea Rose, “A Spatial Analysis of Lightning Strikes and Precipitation in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia (USA) Region,” 2008). Here’s a map showing lightning events clustered east of the urban core during periods of westerly winds:

Bentley et al., “The Atlanta Thunderstorm Effect”

It may be worth noting, too, that Inman Park is adjacent to the subcontinental divide (Dekalb Avenue and the rail lines). In the map below, the pink areas are higher in elevation than the areas shaded yellow, green, and blue.

Here and there throughout these areas of higher elevation are trees that are somewhat taller than their neighbors. You get a sense of that from this photo taken during Festival, looking west from Poplar Circle.

Which is why I recently asked master arborist Chris Hastings about lightning protection for trees. We were standing at the base of a tall tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) growing within several feet of two houses.

If you have a mature tree that you dearly love, or a tall tree very close to your house, you may want to consider asking a reputable tree care company about lightning protection. Not cheap, of course, but then the cost of removing a large tree in Atlanta these days can be more than $10,000.

I’m 60 years old, and twice in my life I’ve been within a few dozen feet of a lightning strike of a tree. The second time, it killed a century-old white oak growing in front of our then home in Virginia-Highland.

Leave a Reply