Lightning: Dangerous, beautiful, unpredictable, and useful for meteorologists

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ST. LOUIS – Hotter than the surface of the sun, unpredictable as to where it’ll strike, lightning is a danger whenever skies start to darken. 

“We can never predict exactly where a lightning bolt is going to strike. And because of that, whenever we know that lightning is in the area, we have to use as much caution as we can because we can’t guarantee it won’t strike where we are standing,” said Melissa Mainhart, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in St. Louis. 

The most important rule to remember: when thunder roars, go indoors. Inside, away from windows, is the safest place to be. 

On July 19, a man was struck by lightning in a St. Louis park after playing soccer. He later died of his injuries. It’s the ninth of 12 fatalities so far this year in the United States.

Since 2006, soccer has now accounted for 13 lightning deaths, the most for any sports activity. 

Statistically, men are four times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than women. In the past 10 years, over 200 men were killed and 60 women. 

“That really comes down to who’s doing outdoor labor, outdoor work. And 90 percent of workers who work outside are men and so that’s going to cause a disproportionate amount of them to be struck by lightning,” Mainhart said. 

Scientists are the first to admit there are still a lot of unknowns about what causes lightning.

Phillip’ Bitzer, associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, researches lightning. He says they’re just now getting to the point where really robust lightning measurements can be made. He explained the fundamental ingredients to making lightning. 

“We need to have things like graupel, which is baby hail. We need to have those collide with ice crystals in the cloud. And that makes the initial charging that happens. And if you can get enough of that to occur, then we can start to produce lightning,” Bitzer said. “The more collisions you get and the more charging you get, the more lightning you have.”

While lightning is very dangerous, researchers have found useful applications when it comes to severe weather. They use what meteorologists refer to as a ‘lightning jump’. 

“Lightning rates just go through the roof roughly about 20 minutes or so before severe weather hits. So it gives us a nice little lead time in addition to some of the other metrics obviously looking at radar and other things like that. That severe weather is coming and is imminent,” Bitzer said. 

Lightning can strike where it’s not raining and even when it’s sunny overhead. While rare, that’s called a “bolt from the blue.”

“Certain conditions, and we’re still trying to find out what exactly those conditions are, that lightning can actually exit the cloud and travel quite a ways before it comes to ground. Ten or more miles away from where its actually raining or where the storm is,” Bitzer said. 

In a large complex of rain and storms lightning can strike hundreds of miles from where it’s actively storming. Bitzer says that with satellite data they see lightning flashes that are on the order of 500 miles long from end to end. 

“We call these ‘spider lightning.’ They tend to crawl along the bottom of the cloud and kind of look like spider legs crawling on the cloud,” said Bitzer. “And while they’re traveling along the bottom of the cloud for hundreds of miles they can actually just decide to go, ‘Alright, time to go downstairs now,’ and drop down to the ground.” 

So, whether a storm is approaching, or the rain just let up make sure you head inside. 

“When thunder roars go indoors. Always. If that means you have to cut a party early, if that means you have to end a hike or a run early, your safety is more important than that activity. Always,” Mainhart said. 

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