Lightning — facts and figures, odds of being hit

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We’re now near the end of the spring season and many areas have already seen more thunderstorms in 2017 than at the same time in 2016.

Some folks have asked about the makeup of these severe storms. Lightning is simply a discharge of electricity, or a giant spark. It can take place between clouds or between a cloud and the ground. Lightning results from various charge-led separations. The first stage of a flash of lightning brings down a negative charge of electricity from the cloud base which is met near the ground by a return stroke that takes a positive charge upward along an already formed channel or pathway.

Additional leads and returns may occur, but the duration of a lightning flash is about one-fifth of a second. The typical bolt of lightning is about 40,000 to 50,000 degrees and is about four to five times hotter than the surface of the sun!

A cloud-to-ground strike can be up to 2 to 10 miles long. The voltage is an incredible 100 million to 1 billion volts. Around the Earth, there are 100 lightning strikes per second, or 8,640,000 times a day. In the U.S., there are approximately 100,000 thunderstorms each year. Most of them occur east of the Rockies, but every state usually sees this phenomenon each year. The normal number of days with thunderstorm activity in the Inland Empire is 11.

Lightning is the most dangerous and frequently encountered weather hazard that people experience. It is the number one cause of storm-related deaths and Americans are twice as likely to die from this phenomenon rather than from a hurricane, tornado or flood. Twenty percent of all lightning victims die from the strike while 70 percent of survivors will suffer serious long-term effects. Many survivors of lightning strikes report immediately before being struck that their hair was standing on end and they also had a metallic taste in their mouth.

The odds of being struck by lightning is about 1 in 10,000. However, a gentleman by the name of Roy Sullivan was hit by lightning on seven different occasions and survived all of them.

And, with lightning comes thunder. We hear the thunder as a superheated lightning bolt of up to 50,000 degrees. There is a sudden increase in pressure and temperature from the lightning which produces a rapid expansion of the air, which often creates a sonic shock wave, similar to a sonic boom. Many of those thunderous booms can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble.

Damage costs from lightning are estimated at $4-5 billion each year in the U.S. And, there are more than 10,000 forest fires caused by lightning. In the Inland Empire, many of our large fires in the summer and early fall seasons have been caused by dry thunderstorms that were generated from numerous lightning strikes.

Despite all of the scientific knowledge, lightning is still one of nature’s great mysteries. People who are struck by lightning are often covered, usually temporarily, by branching tree-like patterns created by the passage of the high voltage of electrical discharges through the skin. Trees have exploded when struck by lightning and extreme heat from a strike can create “lightning fossils” when hitting sand or rock.

If one finds themselves in a thunderstorm, get inside as soon as possible. Stay away from large windows and metal doors. Do not use a land-line telephone as electricity can literally travel through phone lines. Do not bathe or shower and unplug all TV’s as well as sensitive electronics and appliances.

In terms of our local weather, sea-surface temperatures are now cooling down in the south-central Pacific Ocean. Therefore, instead of the warm El Nino that was forecast for later this summer or fall, it now looks like we’ll stay in the in-between warmer El Nino and cooler La Nina for at least the next several months.

Cliff and I see more days with sunshine and some clouds. There will be occasional showers and thunderstorms through the rest of the month, but precipitation totals will likely be near to below normal. With the cooler ocean waters, temperatures should average close to normal through the end of June. We’ve already had temperatures around the 90-degree mark earlier this month and will likely see a few days toward the end of June with readings in the 80s to near 90 degrees. The rest of the summer will still be very warm with precipitation totals are now expected to be closer to normal levels.

SPECIAL NOTE: I wanted to personally thank all of the folks who sent me their thoughts, prayers, cards and condolences regarding the passing of my beloved wife Sally. They were greatly appreciated.

Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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