Half a million acres of California land are on fire due to high lightning activity, CNN reported. In just 72 hours, 11,000 strikes of lightning were recorded in the state, causing blazes that have led to evacuations across the state. There’s more to lightning than meets the eye.
According to CNN, California is burning after more than 11,000 lightning strikes caused hundreds of fires. “California’s lightning-sparked infernos are torching wide swaths of the state, killing a utility worker, demolishing homes, and forcing people to evacuate in the sweltering heat during a pandemic,” the article said.
“More than 500,000 acres—equivalent to almost 80% of the land in Rhode Island—have burned, fire officials said Thursday. 11,000 lightning bolts hit the state within 72 hours, lighting hundreds of fires.”
Lightning strikes are powerful and extreme forces of nature, though they’re often misunderstood.
What Is Lightning? No, Really
Lightning is one of the most extreme weather events, and although it’s commonly known how lightning works, some of the nuances offer better insight into the phenomenon.
“By its simplest definition, lightning is a large electrical discharge—a spark,” said Professor Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The typical lightning strike is about three to six miles long. They could be much longer, and some strikes have been measured in excess of 30 miles.”
However, Professor Snodgrass said, lightning strikes are not typically as wide as we believe they are. When we see them, they look like huge channels of electricity, but this is due to the brightness of the light they emit. In reality, he said, lightning is only about as wide as your thumb.
“Each day on Earth there are approximately nine million lightning strikes,” he said. “That’s about 100 strikes per second. Lightning is a very frequent weather phenomenon, and the odds of your life being impacted by lightning are very high.”
GPS for Lightning Strikes
For the purposes of understanding and predicting inclement and extreme weather, meteorologists have developed tracking tools. Lightning is no exception.
“Lightning detection in the United States is accomplished by using the National Lightning Detection Network, or NLDN,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Since the late 1980s, this network has been collecting the time and location of every strike in the United States. They estimate that between 20 million and 30 million strikes occur in the contiguous United States each year. The reason for the spread in the numbers is that some strikes occur at the same time and are difficult to separate in the data.”
Professor Snodgrass said that when a lightning strike occurs, a large blast of electromagnetic energy “radiates isotropically away from the lightning location.” Soon, that energy passes by a sensor that can detect it. The sensor records the time of the energy change; so, if three or more sensors pick up that change, the position can be triangulated based on the differences in time and sensor location.
“This works much in the same way as a GPS sensor works in your car; that is, for the position of your car to be found, at least three satellites must lock onto your GPS sensor to triangulate your position. The NDLN then maps the locations of the lightning strikes.”
Tracking lightning and understanding its physical properties can help us determine what to expect from thunderstorms.
Professor Eric R. Snodgrass contributed to this article. Professor Snodgrass is the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also received his master’s degree. Previously, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Geography from Western Illinois University.