Weather Whys

By: Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences
By: Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences

Q: Some lightning bolts seem faint, while others light up the entire sky. How powerful is lightning?

A: It’s a lot more powerful than most people believe, says Brent McRoberts of Texas A&M University. “We know for a fact that not all lightning bolts are the same strength – some are relatively weak while others are incredibly strong,” he explains. “At any given moment, there are about 1,800 to 2,000 thunderstorms on Earth and it’s estimated that lightning occurs about 50 times every second. A typical lightning bolt contains about 15 million volts of electricity and can heat up the air around it to well over 50,000 degrees. That’s why the total energy of one thunderstorm can easily surpass the energy released during an atomic explosion.”

Q: If lightning is that strong, how do people survive when struck by it?

A: The answer is that many don’t, McRoberts adds. “Since 1959, about 60 people a year die in the United States from lightning strikes,” he says. "In the 1940s, although America’s population was less than half of what it is today, lightning killed more than 300 Americans each year, on average. In 1942 alone, 432 died, so more people today tend to take shelter quicker when lightning is nearby. Many people do survive after being hit by lightning and there are some strange stories about individuals being literally knocked out of their shoes, or of horseshoes being blown off of horses as the bolt passes through their bodies and of houses being completely destroyed by one bolt. Florida and Arizona are two states known for lightning fatalities. Arizona averages about four lightning deaths a year and most lightning fatalities occur during the summer months.”

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