JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s Severe Weather Awareness Week, an opportunity for Floridians to learn about the various weather hazards that frequently impact the state and how families and businesses can prepare for these natural events. Each day of the week focuses on a specific weather event.
Monday’s focus is on lightning. According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, lightning is one of nature’s deadliest and most unpredictable weather phenomena. Meteorologists can forecast the general conditions that cause lightning but no one can predict exactly when or where lightning will strike.
All thunderstorms contain lightning that can strike a person, tree, or an object either on the ground or in the air. Lightning strikes the ground about 25 million times each year and continues to be among the top weather-related killers in the United States.
The 2021 Florida Severe Weather Awareness Week is a perfect time to note that our state, out of all 50 states, is the lightning capital of the North America. With an average of 1.2 million cloud- to-ground lightning strikes each year, no other state experiences more lightning strikes per square mile than Florida.
Lightning is often seen as an underrated killer because it does not generate as much attention compared to other forms of hazardous weather and usually only claims one or two victims at a time. Most people struck by lightning are not killed, but suffer significant injuries. On average, lightning kills 31 people each year in the United States. Florida averages 7 fatalities per year due to lightning, with many more injuries, and often leads the nation in lightning deaths. In 2017, Florida again claimed this unfortunate distinction, with five fatalities. Why does Florida have this distinction? Florida’s geography plays a large role, especially during the summer.
Some of the elements that make Florida such a great place to live, such as sunshine and the ocean, play important roles in the development of thunderstorms. Because thunderstorm activity peaks in the summer, when most people are enjoying the warm weather, Florida often has the greatest number of lightning fatalities each year in the U.S.
One characteristic that makes lightning so dangerous is its extensive range. Lightning has the ability to strike 10 miles or more away from the thunderstorm core, making it the first storm hazard to arrive and the last to leave. While it may not be raining at your location, lightning can still reach you. In addition, once the lightning strike hits the ground, it can travel up to 60 feet outward from the point of contact.
The other characteristics that make lightning so dangerous are its power and speed. The average lightning bolt carries 100 million volts of electrical potential.
Did you know? Contrary to popular belief, lightning can strike the same place twice and rubber shoes or tires don’t protect you from lightning strikes.
Thunder is a product of lightning. As lighting moves between the ground and thunderstorm, the air around the flash heats rapidly, to temperatures as high as 50,000°F – a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun. This sudden heating creates expansion of the air around the lightning bolt at speeds greater than the speed of sound. The expanding air breaks the sound barrier resulting in the explosive sound we know as thunder. Thunder is really just another form of a sonic boom.
Thunder travels at the speed of sound, which is roughly 1 mile every 5 seconds. You can determine how far away a flash of lightning is by counting the number of seconds that pass after observing a lightning bolt. For every 5 seconds that elapse, the lightning is one mile away. For example, if it takes 15 seconds for the thunder to reach you, then the lightning strike occurred about three miles away.
A “Bolt from the Blue” is a lightning bolt that travels a relatively large distance in clear air away from the parent thunderstorm and then strikes the ground. These lightning flashes have been documented more than 25 miles away from the thunderstorm cloud. These events can be especially dangerous, as they appear to come from “clear blue sky.”