The Top Cause of Weather Fatalities in Your Area May Surprise You

Brian Donegan
Published: September 17, 2019
This map shows the top cause of weather fatalities in each National Weather Service office's County Warning Area during the 20-year period from 1999 to 2018.
(Ian Livingston)

Do you know what type of weather causes the most fatalities in your area? The map above, compiled by Ian Livingston, a meteorologist and co-founder of, answers that question, and the results might be surprising in some parts of the United States.

The map boundaries represent the County Warning Area of each of the 122 National Weather Service offices in the U.S., and the data were obtained from NOAA's Storm Events Database, which currently contains data from January 1950 through May 2019. Each map label denotes the most frequent cause of weather fatalities within that NWS office's County Warning Area during the 20-year period from 1999 through 2018.

The panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and northwestern Texas stand out like a sore thumb in the southern Plains. Much of that region suffers from heat- or flash-flood-related fatalities, but winter weather is the top cause of weather deaths in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and cold temperatures lead to the most fatalities in northwestern Texas. Those areas are much more susceptible to winter cold fronts from the north than the rest of the southern Plains.

(MORE: You Will Never Guess What Kind of Weather Is the Deadliest

Portions of the Great Lakes also have an unexpected top cause of weather fatalities: rip currents. They have been an underrated danger in recent years, killing 71 people on U.S. coastlines in 2018 and 70 people in 2017. Rip currents are also the most frequent cause of weather fatalities along most of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast coasts, much of the Florida coastline, the South Texas Gulf Coast and even parts of the California coast.

Another surprising area on Livingston's map is northern Maine, where lightning results in the most weather deaths. The reason for this is unclear, but one possibility is that there isn't much weather that can kill people since tornadoes or extreme heat, for example, are rare that far north.

Most other areas are generally what you'd expect:

-Avalanches are the top cause of weather deaths in most of the Rockies.

-Tornadoes are the most frequent cause in much of Dixie Alley, an area including parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee that is particularly vulnerable to strong tornadoes in the spring.

-Heat is the top cause in parts of the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, southern Plains and Southwest.

-Cold is the most frequent cause in many northern areas of the country.

-Flooding or flash flooding is the top cause in various portions of the central and eastern U.S., as well as the southern Rockies and southern High Plains.

-High winds are the most frequent cause in most of New England, the eastern Great Lakes, southern Appalachians and parts of the Cascades and Sierra.

-Lightning should not be forgotten, as it is the top cause of weather fatalities in sporadic areas of the country, including parts of the Ohio Valley, Southeast, northern Gulf Coast, Rockies, Desert Southwest and Great Basin.

-Avalanches are the most frequent cause in much of Alaska, while rough surf is the top cause in Hawaii. In Puerto Rico, rip currents are responsible for the most weather-related fatalities.

Livingston told there may be some issues with his data in isolated parts of the Rocky Mountains. He plans to issue a revised version of the map at a later time.

On average, extreme heat is the deadliest type of weather in the U.S., killing 130 people each year, according to NOAA. Flooding is the second-deadliest type of weather in the U.S. (average of 81 deaths per year), while tornadoes follow closely behind in third place (average of 70 deaths per year).

Weather fatalities per year, based on the 30-year average from 1986-2015.

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