Shocking facts about lightning

Shocking facts about lightning

By Duane Friend

Spring brings along thunderstorms, which also bring lightning. Here is some information related to lightning for Illinois and the United States.

  • On average, Central Illinois receives about four to eight lightning flashes per square mile annually.
  • The longest recorded lightning from end to end was over 200 miles.
  • The longest duration of a single lightning discharge is over seven seconds.
  • The air column where lightning flows is instantly heated to over 40,000 degrees, which creates a shock wave that quickly degrades to a sound wave (thunder).
  • The voltage from cloud to ground can build up to over 100,000 volts before a discharge occurs.
  • “Heat” lightning is not formed from heat. It’s just that the thunderstorm is too far away to be seen or heard.
  • Lightning can strike over 10 miles away from the thunderstorm location.
  • One lightning bolt can have the power of 1,000,000,000,000 watts.
  • When you see the same bolt flash three or four times, it likely discharged over 12 times during that same period, but our brains can’t keep up with things happening that fast.
  • There are on average 32 lightning fatalities in the United States each year, which is down substantially from an average of almost 70 several decades ago.
  • The rubber tires on a car are not what protect a person inside the car from lightning. It’s the metal frame. Sorry, Corvette owners.
  • A baseball dugout or open picnic pavilion is not a safe shelter from lightning.
  • Lightning from a thunderstorm can create electrical phenomena called blue jets, sprites and elves, which can occur up to 90 miles above Earth.
  • For lightning to occur, a pathway called a stepped leader is created to reduce the air’s electrical resistance.

For more information on lightning and lightning safety, visit the University of Illinois Disaster Resources website at or the Illinois Lightning Awareness Guide at…/Lightning_Safety_Awareness_Guidebook.pdf.

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About the author

Duane is an Educator with University of Illinois Extension in the Calhoun/Cass/Greene/Morgan/Scott unit.

View all articles by Duane Friend

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