Lightning megaflashes set big new distance and duration records

Satellites confirm the pair more than doubled previous records

a photo of a series of simultaneous lightning strikes over a night landscape

Lightning can create truly dramatic sky shows, as here, above southern Utah. But two South American megabolts put even this one to shame.

jerbarber/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Nature’s fireworks can light the sky with electrifying drama. Now comes news of two extreme examples. These bolts of lightning set new world records. Satellite images caught both flashes over South America.

The World Meteorological Organization reported the new records on June 25. Part of the United Nations, WMO is based in Switzerland. “These are extraordinary records from single lightning flash events,” notes Randall Cerveny. He works at Arizona State University in Tempe. There he directs the meteorology program. Cerveny also leads a team that helps the WMO by certifying extreme weather events. “It is likely that even greater [lightning] extremes still exist,” he says. And, he adds, “we will be able to observe them as lightning detection technology improves.”

One extreme bolt lit the sky over Argentina on March 4, 2019. It lasted for a mind-boggling 16.73 seconds! That’s more than twice as long as the previous record-holder. That earlier 7.74-second flash had occurred on August 30, 2012 in the French Alps.

satellite image of lightning strike
This record-breaking lightning bolt flashed across a large swath of Brazil on October 31, 2018. It linked clouds over the Atlantic Ocean to others over Argentina across a span of 709 kilometers (440.6 miles).WMO, C. Chang

The record distance for a lightning flash goes to a bolt on October 31, 2018. It traveled 709 kilometers (440.6 miles). Starting at the Atlantic Ocean, it zapped across part of Brazil and into Argentina. The past record had been a 321 km (199.5 mile) flash that lit the sky over Oklahoma on June 20, 2007.

Past measurements of flash duration and distance came from Lightning Mapping Arrays. These are ground-based networks of antennas and GPS receivers. Satellites instead verified the newly announced record flashes. Such eyes in the skies, WMO notes, can record extremes that might otherwise go unseen. They also can see some flashes that are beyond the limits of detection by ground-based arrays.

The new records will be logged in the WMO archive of world weather and climate extremes. They also will be published online in an upcoming issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer at Science News. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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