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Experts confirm world-record lightning events

Experts have confirmed new world's records for length and duration of lightning.

The events took place in storms from the Great Plains and the La Plata basin of South America. Both areas are known for producing mesoscale convective systems: massive storm clusters that comprise a unified megastorm.

The lightning was spotted by special instruments aboard the R-series Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES-16 and 17), which can observe an entire hemisphere of the planet at once. 

"We have such new, wonderful technology, that it's allowing us to see nature in a way that we simply haven't been able to," said Randy Cerveny of ASU, Rapporteur of Weather and Climate Extremes for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The longest known lightning stroke occurred April 29, 2020, and spanned 477 miles from coastal Mississippi to the mid-Gulf Coast of Texas.

“Occasionally, what's going to happen is that the cloud is so electrified that we can get a blast that will encompass the entire convective storm. And that's basically what happened off the coast of the United States, down in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Cerveny.

Two month later, on June 18, a thunderstorm over northern Argentina and Uruguay hosted a lightning flash that lasted 17 seconds.

"Most lightning only travels for maybe about just a few miles, maybe 10 miles at most, and lasts less than a second," said Cerveny.

He added that, although these satellites have been operational for more than four years, scientists are just at the threshold of what they might eventually reveal.

"We will probably, as we continue to get more information, be updating even these records, and having even longer or longer duration and longer distance lightning flashes in the near future."

Prior to publication, the events were reviewed and certified by a committee, which included lightning specialist Ron Holle of Holle Meteorology & Photography in Oro Valley and lead author Michael Peterson of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Space and Remote Sensing Group. 

Cerveny said the WMO was heartened that the story has expanded global awareness of the need for thunderstorm safety.

"Whenever you hear thunder, whenever you see lightning, you should take actions to save yourself. Get inside a house or get inside a car — not a convertible, but a hardtop car — and roll up the windows," he said.

The  paperappears in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.