A single lightning strike in the United States nearly two years ago crossed the sky for nearly 770 kilometers, setting a new world record, the United Nations announced on Tuesday. The new record for the longest detected megaflash, measured in the southern United States on April 29, 2020, spanned 768 kilometers, or 477.2 miles, across Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
This is equivalent to the distance between New York and Columbus, Ohio, or between London and the German city of Hamburg, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in a statement. This lightning zigzagged some 60 kilometers further than the previous record, set in southern Brazil on October 31, 2018.
The WMO’s Committee of Experts on Weather and Climate Extremes also reported a new world record for lightning duration. A single flash that developed continuously through a thunderstorm over Uruguay and northern Argentina on June 18, 2020 lasted 17.1 seconds, 0.37 seconds longer than the previous record established on March 4, 2019, also in northern Argentina.
“Even Greater Extremes”
“These are extraordinary records of unique lightning events,” Randall Cerveny, WMO’s rapporteur on weather and climate extremes, said in the statement.
“Environmental extremes are living measures of the power of nature, as well as scientific advances in the ability to make such assessments,” he said.
The technology used to detect the length and duration of lightning has improved dramatically in recent years, allowing records far greater than what was once the norm. The previous “megaflash” records, from 2018 and 2019, were the first verified with the new satellite lightning imaging technology and were both more than double the previous records using data collected from technology at the ground.
“It’s likely that even greater extremes still exist that we may observe as lightning detection technology improves,” Cerveny said.
The WMO pointed out that the new record strikes occurred in the Great Plains in North America and the La Plata Basin in South America, known as hotspots for so-called mesoscale convective system thunderstorms. (MCS), which allow megaflashes. He pointed out that the lightning strikes that set the new records were not isolated events, but occurred during active, large-scale thunderstorms, which makes them all the more dangerous.
“Lightning is a major hazard that claims many lives each year,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in the statement.
“The results highlight significant lightning-related public safety concerns for electrified clouds where lightning strikes can travel extremely large distances.”
The WMO pointed out that the only places protected from lightning are large buildings with wiring and plumbing, or fully enclosed, metal-covered vehicles. The UN agency maintains official global records for a range of weather and climate statistics, including temperature, precipitation and wind.
All of these records are stored in the WMO Archives of Extreme Weather and Climate Events. The archive currently includes two other lightning-related extremes.
One is for most people killed by a single direct strike, when 21 people died in Zimbabwe in 1975 as they huddled for protection in a hut that had been hit. The other is an indirect strike, when 469 people died in Dronka, Egypt, when lightning struck a set of oil tanks in 1994 causing the town to flood with burning oil.
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