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Behind the Forecast: Superbolts: 1,000 times brighter than average lightning

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Updated: Feb. 5, 2021 at 9:15 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Lightning is a dangerous but enthralling phenomenon. A normal lightning flash is 300 million Volts and around 30,000 Amps. These powerful strikes can heat the air surrounding them to temperatures nearly five times hotter than the surface of the sun (30,000°C). Superbolts, which are rare, can be nearly 100 times more powerful and around 1,000 times brighter than a typical lightning bolt.

Lightning forms when the electrical charges built up in the ground and clouds interact. While clouds are typically negatively charged in most scenarios when lightning forms, clouds are more likely to be positively charged when superbolts form.

Researchers have found that superbolts are most common between November and February, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. Most superbolts strike west of Europe in the Northern Atlantic, in the Mediterranean Sea, and over the Andes Mountains. Smaller concentrations of superbolts were also found east of Japan in the North Pacific, south of South Africa, and in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans along the Equator. Superbolts typically strike over oceans and seas. This is the opposite of all global lightning, which is concentrated over landmasses.

Scientists have found that superbolts are usually associated with large winter storms over open bodies of water. Large amounts of electrical charge can accumulate in these massive storms which can be hundreds of miles across, helping with the creation of superbolts.

Superbolts are quite rare, comprising about 0.3 percent of lightning strikes seen by satellites, according to data collected from January 2018 to January 2020. That’s just a third of one percent. One study used the 2018 to 2020 data from the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, a device on the GOES weather satellites that watch North and South America from above. The brightness of the flashes is particularly noted since scientists correlate brightness with energy.

This animation depicts a superbolt-producing lightning flash captured by the Geostationary Lightning Mapper over the southeastern United States on February 19, 2019. The lightning flash spanned several hundred kilometers and lasted nearly 7 seconds.

This animation depicts a superbolt-producing lightning flash captured by the Geostationary Lightning Mapper over the southeastern United States on February 19, 2019. The lightning flash spanned several hundred kilometers and lasted nearly 7 seconds.

Researchers have found that superbolts are also related to “megaflashes.” Megaflashes are defined as “horizontal mesoscale lightning discharges that reach 100s of kilometers in length.” Megaflashes have been recorded traveling more than 400 miles horizontally across the sky. Megaflashes can also last for significant amounts of time. The average lightning strike lasts 30 microseconds while a mega flash has been recorded lingering for more than 16 seconds.

There is still a lot of research to be done to learn more about why and how these superbolts occur.

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