At least 4,500 people die annually after being struck by lightning. The actual number could be much higher. It tends to happen in remote places and there are not always detailed records. What happens if we are struck by lightning? Well, it leaves a lot of physical evidence to help identify the circumstances of death. Skin damage, burns or trauma to various organs. But scientists wanted to know how lightning can mark our bones.
“This is the first time to look for unique markers of lightning damage in the human skeleton. It allows us to recognize lightning when only bones survive.” Lo states forensic anthropologist Nicholas Bacci. He works at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
In his previous experimentsfound these unique indicators in animal skeletons. “Extensive microfracture and fragmentation of the bone matrix,” he says. It was in the skeleton of a pig.
The same type of microfracture was in the bones of a giraffe. The one that had been struck by lightning. In some human cadavers donated to science, there were similar microfractures. But they were not linked to thermally induced changes in a bone. For example, due to fire.
“[El daño del rayo] takes the form of cracks. They radiate from the center of the bone cells. Or they register irregularly between groups of cells”, explains forensic anthropologist Patrick Randolph-Quinney.
Bone density, which decreases from the age of 40, affects the frequency of microfractures. The older you are, the more damage will be recorded in the more fragile bones.
Why do microfractures occur? It is the high pressure shock wave that passes through a bone, says in an article. The passage of electrical energy literally destroys bone cells. Specialists call this phenomenon barotrauma.
For forensic scientists, the discovery is important. These microfractures could be “smoking gun” in a mysterious death. Understanding how lightning can mark our bones solves this problem.
The results of the study were published at Forensic Science International: Synergy.