Weather Report: Lightning

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Lightning can present as a subtle glow in a distant storm or it can keep a dark sky brightly illuminated for hours. The difference is reflected in the power and energy the lightning gives off, Brent McRoberts with the Department of Atmospheric Services at Texas A&M University explains.

Image by NOAALightning can present as a subtle glow in a distant storm or it can keep a dark sky brightly illuminated for hours. The difference is reflected in the power and energy the lightning gives off, Brent McRoberts with the Department of Atmospheric Services at Texas A&M University explains.

Q:  Some bolts of lightning seem very faint, while others brighten up the entire sky. How powerful is lightning?

A:  Most people aren’t aware of the incredible energy and power of lightning, says Brent McRoberts of Texas A&M University. “It’s true that some bolts of lightning are much stronger than others,” he explains. “At any given moment, there are about 1,200 thunderstorms occurring all over the Earth, and it’s estimated that each second, there are about 100 lightning flashes somewhere over our planet. A typical lightning bolt contains about 250,000 kilowatt-hours of energy and instantly heats up the air around it to over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The total energy released during the lifetime of a strong thunderstorm can exceed the energy released during an atomic explosion.”

Q:  Then how do people survive when struck by lightning?

A: Many don’t, McRoberts adds. “Since 1959, about 90 people a year die in the U.S. as the result of lightning strikes,” he says. “Many people do survive after being hit by lightning, and there are some remarkable stories about individuals being literally knocked out of their shoes, or of horseshoes being blown off of horses as the bolt passes through their bodies. Florida and Arizona are two states known for lightning fatalities. In the summer months, Arizona has thunderstorms that occur almost every day during a monsoon period and these usually contain lightning. Arizona averages about 4 lightning deaths a year, and nearly all of these fatalities occur during this 3-month period.”

Weather Whys is a service of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.