Last night we had the first thunderstorm of the year! …and I managed to capture this bolt o’ lightnin’.
Semi-interesting fact— Newspapers in the 1800′s often used terms other than “lightning” when describing it. Their alternate terms included: “electrical bombardment”, “electrical pyrotechnic” or a “peculiar pyrotechnic display”.
Can someone who knows about science or weather stuff explain this to me?? So I worked as a camp counselor last summer in Wisconsin where there was like hella thunder storms every once in a while, big earth shaking ones. One night one hits, like a super big one. I was usually awake during storms just in case one of my girls got scared but this one was scaring me so I got up and went around the cabin making sure that all the windows are closed and nothing was plugged in, just in case. Then as I was walking back to my bed I felt the hairs on my arms stand up and heard a fain crackling sound. It felt like my nerves were charging up and I thought the cabin was about to be struck by lightening or something. I heard the crackling getting louder and suddenly right in front of me there was this ball of white light floating in the air. The crackling sound turned into a boom and the ball exploded in front of me, I was blinded for a second and threw my arms up in front of me. All of this only took a second and when I opened my eyes again the cabin was dark and I could hear the storm still raging outside. I checked to make sure no one was hurt and then after a bit got back into bed. It was wild and a year later I still don’t know exactly what it was.
Lets first breakdown the dynamics of a typical storm that has lightning - so no snow necessary as of yet. Lightning happens after the storm has gained a charge as a result of particles rubbing and colliding against each other in the strong vertical convection greater than 5m/s. The clouds that make up these storms are massive in height, as high as 50,000 feet or more. All of this results in an updraft of moist air from the surface.
This is a massive contrast to a snowstorm. Snowstorms usually have fairly gentle vertical convection when compared to a summer thunderstorm. Additionally, they’re a lot more shallow in the atmosphere, about 20,000 feet in height usually. The surface being around or below freezing temperatures just doesn’t allow for a massive amount of moisture content and instability. So how do we get the sort of atmospheric movement to match up to a summer thunderstorm? We need strong forcing mechanisms!
Often if we observe thundersnow we see rather strong conditions working in combination with each other. This can include things like lifting from frontal activity, lake-effect snows, orographic lifting, or even synoptic forcing underneath the trowal in strong occluding mid-latitude cyclones. There’s a number of other mechanisms that play into strong winter storms that can create lightning but these are a few of the culprits we can often point to.
We’ve basically established that thundersnow is most often observed in the most elite of winter storms - blizzards with snowfall rates of 2-4 inches per hour. Interestingly enough, that snowfall decreases your visibility to ¼ a mile and dampens the sound of thunder to a 2-3 mile radius (normal thunderstorms can be heard from much larger distances), so even if you’re in a storm that has thundersnow, you may never notice!