Last night’s storm had an extraordinary amount of lightning

Lightning around the Washington Monument from a previous thunderstorm in DC. Image by josephgruber, via iStock.

Last night’s deadly thunderstorm was another example of the severe weather that appears to be intensifying in the metropolitan area. To find out more about severe weather in our region, we called in meteorologist and lightning expert Chris Vajaski from Vaisala, a Finnish company that specializes in weather measurement tools and software. Vagasky serves on the company’s Lightning Safety CouncilAnd the Who tracks lightning around the world and shares tips with the public.

Did a storm last night here cause an unusual amount of lightning?

Last night in the capital, there were 789 detections of lightning bolts. This is lightning in the cloud and cloud to earth. This is about seven to eight percent of the annual lightning that typically occurs in Washington, DC. This is a very large amount for a short period of time. It was a severe storm.

What makes the capital vulnerable to severe weather?

In the event of a thunderstorm, you need three things: moisture, instability, and lift. When it comes to the Mid-Atlantic region and the metropolitan area, there is a lot of moisture around. It’s not too far from the Chesapeake Bay [Potomac and Anacostia rivers] Right there. It was very hot along the East Coast yesterday. So there is moisture and instability there. Yesterday, there was a risk of storms in most parts of the United States. The heat from yesterday helped provide some of that lift in the metropolitan area. So yesterday conditions were favorable for storms, and that’s been happening a lot all summer long in that metropolitan area.

Have summer storms intensified lately?

July and August are the peak lightning months in the United States. July is the most common number of lightning deaths in the United States. June and August are on either side of that, because it’s lightning season in the United States. That’s when people are out of school, people are on vacation, and outside enjoying the nice summer weather and don’t necessarily pay attention to the storms around them or whether the storm is moving. Then lightning strikes them near them or strikes them, causing injuries or deaths.

Lightning has been fairly consistent across the United States over the past twenty to thirty years. Scientists, meteorologists and climatologists study lightning, its frequency, and where it occurs every day of the year to better understand how the planet evolves, and whether climate change means more storms or fewer storms. And we’re always focused on how we can use the information we have to better keep people safe.

So how Can Are people staying safe?

Back in the early 2000s, 50 to 60 people died each year due to lightning. Now, that rate has dropped to about 20 people per year. In the past few years, that number has actually decreased to about 17. Anytime you see a cloud gathering, if you hear thunder or see lightning, you want to start moving to a lightning-safe place: a fully enclosed metal vehicle or a large building with electricity and pipes running through walls. If you are in a fully enclosed metal vehicle, the lightning electricity travels through the vehicle’s metal casing and then discharges into the ground. Similarly, if you are in a large building, lightning strikes the building and goes through the plumbing and electrical and goes to the ground.

If you got stuck outside by accident and a thunderstorm started to move, know that drought does not mean safety. Lightning can strike up to 10 to 15 miles from a thunderstorm. So, even before the rain gets there or after the rain leaves, you’re at risk of getting caught by lightning. Seek shelter under trees, under sidewalks, and under picnic shelters or pavilions, as these are not places that are safe from lightning. Lightning can strike a tree or shelter and electricity can jump from that object into you.

Certainly when you are outside, you always need to be aware of your surroundings and be aware of the weather. Most people now have a phone with a weather app with them most of the time. So first of all, be aware of the predictions. And if thunderstorms are expected, perhaps reconsider external plans. There is plenty to do indoors in the capital.

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