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Where does lightning strike? New maps pinpoint 36.8 million yearly ground strike points in unprecedented detail

Chris Vagasky, University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

It’s been a warm day, maybe even a little humid, and the tall clouds in the distance remind you of cauliflower. You hear a sharp crack, like the sound of a batter hitting a home run, or a low rumble reminiscent of a truck driving down the highway. A distant thunderstorm, alive with lightning, is making itself known.

Lightning flashes in thunderstorms at least 60 times per second somewhere around the planet, sometimes even near the North Pole.

Each giant spark of electricity travels through the atmosphere at 200,000 miles per hour. It is hotter than the surface of the sun and delivers thousands of times more electricity than the power outlet that charges your smartphone. That’s why lightning is so dangerous.

Lightning kills or injures about 250,000 people around the world every year, most frequently in developing countries, where many people work outside without lightning-safe shelters nearby. In the United States, an average of 28 people were killed by lightning every year between 2006 and 2023. Each year, insurance pays about US$1 billion in claims for lightning damage, and around 4 million acres of land burn in lightning-caused wildfires.

Yet, estimates of U.S. lightning strikes have varied widely, from about 25 million a year, a number meteorologists have cited since the 1990s, to 40 million a year, reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That complicates lightning safety and protection efforts.

I’m a meteorologist whose research focuses on understanding lightning behavior. In a new study, my colleagues and I used six years of data from a national lightning detection network that we believe has become precise enough to offer a more accurate picture of lightning strikes across the U.S. That knowledge is essential for improving forecasts and damage prevention.

 

To get a clearer picture of how often lightning strikes, it helps to define what a lightning strike is.

Imagine looking out a window at a thunderstorm with cloud-to-ground lightning nearby. The lightning appears to flicker.

A lightning flash and is all the cloud-to-ground lightning that occurs within 1 second and a 6-mile radius. Each flicker is a lightning stroke. Each stroke can hit one or more ground strike points, and there can be multiple strokes in the same channel.

Lightning is a large electrical discharge trying to dissipate the electricity in a cloud, so if there is a lot of electricity built up, there can be a lot of lightning to get rid of it all.

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