According to scientists, the longest record-breaking lightning bolt was 321.1 kilometers long. It spanned almost the entire length of Oklahoma and roughly the distance between Washington and New York.
Meanwhile, the longest-lasting lightning strike occurred over Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France on Aug. 30, 2012. The flash lasted for an admirable 7.74 seconds, and also stretched for a respectable 200 kilometers long. Usually, lightning bolts remain connected to the ground for an average of just 0.2 seconds. Thus, a 7.74 second-long flash is certainly a remarkable event.
The longest lightning bolt split the skies over Oklahoma on June 20, 2007. This lightning bolt lasted for 5.7 seconds, still much longer than the average length of duration.
So if lighting bolts are usually gone in a flash, pun intended, how were scientists able to measure them? Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) used improved remote sensing techniques that allowed them to detect lightning extremes.
Technological improvements lead to great—or, at the very least, extremely interesting—things. They can turn the previously unknowable into something observable and quantifiable. Such is the case with WMO. Improved technologies enabled the organization to find out more about lightning strikes.
The information WMO found about these record-breaking lightning strikes is critical. Scientists found out that lightning bolts can stretch long distances away from the storms that produced them. According to the WMO's report, the findings emphasize how dangerous lightning can be. In fact, lightning strike “danger zones” may be larger than we thought. The WMO also suspects that there are more unknown and even greater weather extremes out there just waiting for detection.
Because of these possible weather extremes, the research committee proposed that there is a need for a new definition of what lightning is. The previous definition for lightning was “a series of electrical processes taking place within one second.” In their report, the team proposed replacing the phrase “within one second” with “continuously”.
The researchers also found that the record-breaking lightning strikes may have occurred in Mesoscale Convective Systems (MCSs). A MCS is a complex of thunderstorms that are larger than single thunderstorms but still smaller than extratropical cyclones. It's possible that MCSs give rise to extreme lightning.
With more technological advances and improved techniques, we'll most likely know more details about lightning and extreme weather. Eventually, we may even learn how to safely observe lightning. Until then, however, the National Weather Service advises that people should stay indoors to avoid lightning strikes. Lightning strikes and storms kill thousands of people a year, so it's best to prioritize safety when experiencing storms.
While record-breaking lightning bolts are certainly remarkable, they're also a reminder that we really don't know everything there is to know about Nature. Our scientists are still continuously digging for more information that can help us survive our unpredictable world. This research on extreme weather can help keep people in high-risk areas safe from harm. We can also learn more about the different types of lightning, which we still don't know much about.
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