Why you're more likely to die from a meteor strike than a lightning strike

Illustration for article titled Why you're more likely to die from a meteor strike than a lightning strike

It seems that the best way to predict future behavior is to look at past behavior. But if you had the chance to bet on which is more likely to kill you, lightning or a meteor — then, believe it or not, you should choose the meteor, even though no meteor has ever killed any human. Find out the strange odds, below.


We all know the odds of lightning strikes and lottery tickets — or at least, we know enough not to rely on either. Still, the extraordinarily rare always makes a good story, and so we hear when someone wins the lottery, and we hear when someone is struck by lightning. Some people are even killed by the strikes, although the odds are sometimes calculated to be in excess of two million to one.

What we never hear about is anyone being killed by a meteor. Reportedly, a UK teenager was hit on the hand by one in 2009, and an Alabama woman was hit on the hip in the fifties. A dog in Egypt was supposedly vaporized. There have been quite a few reports of near misses. But no human has ever been killed by one.

And yet, the odds that you, yes you, will be killed by a meteor are much higher than the odds of a lightning strike. These worrisome odds stack up not because of frequent homicidal meteors, but because of the effectiveness of meteors over a certain size. A humanity-ending meteor hits the Earth, according to some calculations, about one every hundred million years. If that happens, everyone is dead. Since it's been calculated that one of those meteors hits the world every 100 million years, and a person lives an average of 70 years, then the odds of being killed by a worldwide killer is a little under one in 1.5 million. (It's about 1.43 million.) Already, it's less than the upper estimate of being killed by lightning bolt.

But there's more. Asteroids don't have to be that big to kill off some people. Those smaller meteors will kill off one one-thousandth of the people killed by the large one, but on average they happen a thousand times more frequently. Double the odds of death, and you have a likelihood of being killed by a meteor of one in about 700,000.

You'll notice, as life expectancy increases worldwide, the odds of being killed by a meteor go up significantly. Raising the lifespan of the average human to 80 would make our odds of being killed by a meteor 1 in 625,000, and if we start living to 100, we'll have odds of being killed by meteors in the one in 500,000 range. Since this is what health officials want — healthy people living a long time — we have to ask, why do they want to kill us all with meteors? But that's a question for the psychologists.

Image: C.M. Handler
Via Funny2, and Discover.



This strikes me as a fundamental misapplication of statistics. No human civilization has ever been destroyed by a planet-killing asteroid, after all. There's just an assumption being made that if the kind of planet-killer that has struck in the past strikes again, it'll destroy human civilization.

But that's clearly not how statistics work. You can't pull the future into the past and claim that gives you information about the future. That's like me showing you a coin that has only ever come up heads and claiming "oh, it's a fair coin; you just have to trust me that in 2059, it'll come up tails so frequently that it'll work out to 50/50."

We develop statistics based on what happened in the past to guide our reasoning about what might happen in the future. This "calculation" appears to be based on doing the exact reverse.