Megaflashes Bust Lightning Myths - Jaime Bonetti Zeller

Megaflashes Bust Lightning Myths

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Recently the World Meteorological Organization Committee on Weather and Climate Extremes, certified two new world records for lightning. Aptly called megaflashes, the strikes more than double the previous records.

The longest reported distance for a single lightning flash covered a horizontal distance of approximately 709 km, or 440 miles, in Brazil on October 2018. This would be equivalent to the distance between Boston and Washington D.C. The greatest duration for a single lightning flash is 16.73 seconds from a flash that developed continuously over northern Argentina in March 2019.

This news is more than impressive stats, it illustrates that lightning can travel farther than most people realize, and well before someone sees a storm. These dangerous assumptions are part of the reason lightning is one of the leading weather-related causes of death and injury in the United States.

Lightning is one of the more unpredictable aspects in nature. Many meteorologists report that they are most afraid of lightning – more than tornadoes and hurricanes – due to its erratic nature. Lightning and thunderstorms can be forecast with some degree of accuracy days out, and with high precision a couple hours out, but individual lightning strikes are nothing short of random. It is no surprise that there are many myths about lightning.

An old trick from the early 1900s was to count how many seconds it took to hear thunder after seeing a flash of lightning, as light travels quicker than sound. The idea was that for every second counted after the lightning strike was equal to one mile. If it took 10 seconds to hear the thunder, then the lightning must be 10 miles away. Simple math proves this is a myth.

Sound travels roughly 1,088 feet per second. With 5,280 feet in a mile, it takes about five seconds for the thunder to travel one mile, meaning lightning is five times closer than previously thought. Take the time and divide it by five to estimate how many miles away the lightning is. For example, if you see a lightning strike and then hear the thunder up to 40 seconds later, it is within a dangerous range. Simple, yet effective advice of “when thunder roars, head indoors” holds true. If you can hear thunder then lightning is likely close enough to strike.

Another common myth is that lightning is dangerous when you can see a thunderstorm. Distant thunderstorms can be seen for miles on a mid-summer day and the taller the thunderstorm, the further it can be observed. Tall thunderstorms, and often ones with a slow forward motion, can spread lightning strikes for miles across the landscape. Occasionally, lightning will even strike up to 25 miles away from the thunderstorms, a phenomenon called a “bolt from the blue” because the sky is clear where the lightning struck. And yes, lightning can, and often does, hit the same spot more than once, contrary to another lightning myth.

Outdoor events, from high school and professional sports to stadium-filled concerts, are the most susceptible to the deadly and harmful effects of lightning strikes. Not only are the events outdoor in the open, but often grandstands and metal bleachers are filled with people, increasing the odds of an incident.

Weather-aware event organizers typically use a rule of 8-10 miles before an action plan is initiated. Meaning, when lightning comes within an 8-10 miles radius, all activities are suspended and attendees are evacuated to a safe location. Private weather companies have a variety of solutions to reduce the threat of the first lightning strike, which is often the deadliest. Solutions range from SMS texts, push notifications on cells phones, to on-site automated sirens that are triggered when lightning threatens.

While most of the world probably will not have to worry about lightning traveling 400 miles, the record does demonstrate the erratic, random and dangerous behavior of lightning. There is also a great likelihood that there have been megaflashes in the past and we have only recently had the technology to observe and measure the lightning strikes. These new world records for lightning are just a few reminders that businesses, communities and the general public must continue to take the threat seriously and take advantage of the latest technology to understand lightning risks and have a plan in place to stay safe.

About Jaime Bonetti Zeller

Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.