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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

Over six years of data from the National Lightning Detection Network, we found that the U.S. averages 23.4 million flashes, 55.5 million strokes and 36.8 million ground strike points each year.

The basic ingredients for thunderstorms are warm and moist air near the ground with cooler, drier air above it and a way to lift the warm moist air. Anywhere those ingredients are present, lightning can occur.

This happens most frequently near the Gulf Coast, where the sea breeze helps trigger thunderstorms most days in the summer. Florida in particular is a hot spot for cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale area alone had over 120,000 lightning strokes in 2023.

The Central and Southern U.S. aren’t quite as lightning prone, but they tend to have more thunderstorms and lightning strikes than the North and West of the country, though lightning in the West can be especially destructive when it sparks wildfires.

The cool waters of the Pacific Ocean, meanwhile, tend to mean few thunderstorms along the West Coast.

To be able to count how much lightning is hitting the ground and where it is doing so, you have to be able to detect it. Luckily, cloud-to-ground lightning is fairly easy to detect – in fact, you may have done it.

When lightning flashes, it acts like a giant radio antenna that sends electromagnetic waves – radio waves – around the world at the speed of light. If you have an AM radio station on during a thunderstorm, you may hear a lot of static.

The National Lightning Detection Network uses strategically placed antennas to listen for these radio waves produced by lightning. It’s now able to locate at least 97% of the cloud-to-ground lightning that occurs across the U.S.

 

The number of lightning strikes varies year to year depending on the prevailing weather patterns during the spring and summer months, when lightning is most common. There isn’t enough accurate U.S. data yet to say whether there is a trend toward more or less lightning. However, changes in lightning frequency and location can be an indicator of climate change affecting storms and precipitation, which is why the World Meteorological Organization designated lightning as an “essential climate variable.”

Meteorologists and emergency management teams can use this new data and our analysis to better understand how lightning typically affects their regions. That can help them better forecast risks and prepare the public for thunderstorm hazards. Engineers are also using these results to create better lightning protection standards to keep people and property safe.

Lightning strikes are still unpredictable. So, to stay safe, remember: When thunder roars, go indoors.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Chris Vagasky, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Chris Vagasky previously worked for Vaisala, owner-operator of the National Lightning Detection Network


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