Lichtenberg figures: People share photos of the startling fern-leaf scars left from lightning strikes

Lichtenberg figures occur under the skin when the lightning strike causes the person's blood vessels to explode and in most cases, they last only for a couple of days.


                            Lichtenberg figures: People share photos of the startling fern-leaf scars left from lightning strikes

There are a lot of things that could happen to a person when they are struck by a bolt of lightning. The person could end up having organ damage, amnesia, broken bones, and could even die. Some people who have been struck by lightning, however, have managed to avoid all the horrifying life-changing injuries and have lived to tell the tale.

Not only that, they have all been given a unique mark on their skin in the areas that were affected by the lightning. These patterns, which look like fern-leaves, are known as Lichtenberg figures. They occur under the skin when the lightning strike causes the person's blood vessels to explode. In most of the cases of the survivors, the marks do not end up being permanent and could even go away after only a couple of days.

The chances of getting struck by lightning in the UK are pretty slim, to begin with, even though there are different sources that vary on how rare exactly it is to be struck. David Hand's book, The Improbability Principle, has suggested that the likelihood of being hit is 300,000/1, while the BMJ has said that the figure is closer to 10,000,000/1. In any case, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has stated that "30-60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain, and on average, 3 (5-10%) of these strikes are fatal".  



They have also said that 80% of the lightning victims they have recorded are male. Recently two teenage boys were able to survive being struck by lightning while they were walking through a park in El Mirage, Arizona, on August 8. The lightning hit 13-year-old Javier Tapia on the hip and traveled through his body before exiting his foot. He now has Lichtenberg figures in both places.

His 13-year-old friend, Josiah Wiedman, had not been so lucky and suffered a concussion as well as a fractured skull. Tapia said, "At first I didn’t feel anything but after I was able to get control of my arms after they were helping me, that’s just when everything started burning. I got struck, I didn’t feel myself fall down. It felt like I was floating. But I was still able to hear everything."

Lichtenberg figures get their name from the German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the man who first discovered and studied the fern-like shapes that were made by electric damage. The pattern happens when high voltage passes through or along the surface of materials with insulating capabilities. 

When the patterns were first discovered, it was thought that their characteristic shapes might help to reveal the nature of positive and negative electric “fluids”. This discovery was also the prelude to the modern-day science of plasma physics. Even though Lichtenberg only studied 2D figures, modern high voltage researchers study 2D and 3D figures (electrical trees) on, and within, insulating materials. Lichtenberg figures are now also known to be examples of fractals.

A single bolt of lightning is made up of 100 million volts and the Met Office has reported that they travel at the speed of 270,000 mph. The bolts are also said to reach temperatures of 30,000 C which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun.