lightning storm

Trees in the Greensboro – Winston-Salem – High Point area often get hit by lightning. That’s why you’ve probably been told most of your life not to take shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm.

While it may not seem like that big of a deal in the middle of a forest, if a tree is struck by lightning on your property, suddenly it becomes a very big deal.

So what happens when lightning hits a tree? Is there any way to prevent it? (Yes) Is it always obvious if your tree has been struck? (No) What can you do if your tree has been hit by lightning? Find the answers and more below.

Why are trees often struck by lightning?

Due to their height and the fact that they contain moisture, trees conduct electricity better than the air around them, making them a “magnet” for lightning strikes.

There is an even greater chance that a tree will attract lightning if it is:

  • alone in a field
  • growing near a body of water
  • on the edge of a forest or group of trees
  • on a hilltop or mountain
  • growing close to a building
  • decorated with strings of electric lights

What happens when lightning strikes a tree?

As you might imagine, being struck by lightning can be incredibly harmful to a tree. A bolt of lightning can reach temperatures of up to 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s six times hotter than the sun!

Understandably, many trees can’t survive under an attack at that temperature, so the tree will catch on fire or shatter. However, sometimes the tree is barely affected and you might not even know that it was hit.

A few things determine the difference between a tree that survives a lightning strike and one that doesn’t:

  • If the bark’s outer layer is covered in rain, the lightning may travel through the rainwater and into the ground, leaving the tree unscathed.
  • If lightning is able to reach inner parts of the tree, heat from the lightning will cause the tree’s cells to boil, releasing steam that cracks or breaks the bark. Depending on how badly the tree is cracked, it may survive this with a little extra TLC.
  • If the tree is diseased or rotting, the inside of the tree is likely filled with moisture. The steam generated by a lightning strike will be powerful enough to cause the tree to actually explode, with pieces of the tree flying everywhere. Obviously, a tree won’t survive this kind of catastrophic damage!

We offer safe and efficient tree removal services for trees that have been irreparably damaged by lightning. These trees can be very dangerous so it’s not something to do yourself. Only entrust tree removal work to someone with the skills and special equipment to do it safely.

Is it obvious if a tree has been hit?

It is not always obvious that a tree has been struck by lightning, though it depends on the circumstances. Obvious signs of a lightning strike are:

  • the tree is on fire (contact emergency services immediately)
  • the tree has shattered pieces of bark hanging from the trunk or beneath the tree
  • you can spot a burned area on the tree’s trunk

Since lightning is attracted to moisture, some lightning scars may be internal and can only be spotted by a trained arborist.

If you’re concerned about any of your trees that have suffered a lightning strike, contact us for a professional evaluation.

Will my tree survive after being hit by lightning?

burned out tree that's been hit by lightningIf your tree has been hit by lightning, it’s prior health, how damaging the strike was, and how you care for it afterward will all determine if it will survive.

If the tree was already diseased or damaged, it will probably need to be removed. However, not all trees that have been hit by lightning are goners. If only one section was hit, for instance, it has a better chance of survival.

Regardless of the degree of lightning damage, all trees that have been struck by lightning will need some extra care and attention if you want them to recover.

The first step is to have any burned or damaged branches removed. If there are hanging pieces of bark that can’t be put back, they should be removed as well.

Ensure that your tree has enough water (but don’t overwater!), and talk with an arborist about whether supplemental fertilization is necessary.

Then, just keep checking on your tree every so often. We recommend waiting at least 2 to 6 months before doing any major tasks such as corrective pruning. That will also give you enough time to see how well the tree recovers; if it’s not showing signs of improvement then it should probably be removed.

The injury from a lightning strike can expose the tree to pests and diseases, so watch carefully for any signs that that may be happening. You can also work with an arborist on a plan to prevent insects from entering the tree at the site of the injury.

With proper maintenance and care, many trees have survived lightning strikes – sometimes more than once!

However, it’s always easier (and usually less expensive) to prevent lightning injuries in the first place.

Are lightning strikes preventable?

Lightning can be diverted away from your trees by use of a lightning protection system. Especially important on trees that are vulnerable (and/or valuable!), these systems work by capturing, and then dissipating, the electrical charge into the ground.

Contact us for more information about lightning protection systems and whether your trees are a good candidate for one of these systems.

Lightning kills more than trees

Don’t forget to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from lightning. North Carolina ranks third as the state with the most deaths from lightning strikes.

Be sure that you know what to do when storms appear here in the Triad area. Check out these safety tips from ReadyNC for what to do before, during and after thunderstorms and lightning.

As the National Weather Service says, “When thunder roars, head indoors!” And since trees don’t have that option, contact us to discuss ways to keep your trees safe during summer storms.