Arizona Lightning by Royal Norman

Posted: Updated:
Lightning near Tucson. (Source: Lori Grace Bailey Photography) Lightning near Tucson. (Source: Lori Grace Bailey Photography)
Lightning over downtown Phoenix (Source: Bryan Snider Photography) Lightning over downtown Phoenix (Source: Bryan Snider Photography)
Positive streamers reach up to meet step leader (Source: Mike Olbinski Photography) Positive streamers reach up to meet step leader (Source: Mike Olbinski Photography)
Positive Lightning. (Source: Karen Swanson Photography) Positive Lightning. (Source: Karen Swanson Photography)
Sprite Lightning. (Source: Ben Cherry Photography) Sprite Lightning. (Source: Ben Cherry Photography)
(3TV/CBS 5) -

Don’t mess with lightning. Period. All the experts, people much smarter than me, say that when a storm approaches and you hear thunder, stop your outdoor activities immediately and seek shelter in a building or a car. Stay there until the storm passes. 

There’s a lot of lightning in Arizona and much of it comes during the monsoon. On average, the state sees more than ½ a million lightning strikes, lightning that strikes the ground, and probably more than 2 million total flashes when you count lightning within clouds. 

Which brings up the interesting question. Is it really cloud-to-ground or the other way around? Or a little bit of both?

A little of both, it turns out.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona Monsoon 2017]

Most lightning that strikes the ground is negatively charged. It starts with an invisible “stepped leader” from the cloud. As it nears the ground, it’s met by a “streamer” which is a positive charge reaching up. When they meet, a “return stroke” of bright light travels back to the cloud at more than 50,000 miles a second. That’s the first part we usually see. Lightning can flicker along essentially the same channel more than a dozen times.

Positive lightning works the same way, just reversed, with a positive leader from the top of the thunderstorm meeting an uprising negative streamer to make the electric connection. Positive lightning can be 10 times more powerful than negative lightning and strike farther from a storm. It also does more damage and, probably, is responsible for most of the lightning-caused wildfires.

We’ll talk about sprites later this summer. And bipolar lightning. Yeah, it’s a real thing. In the meantime, stay safe when thunderstorms form and lightning develops.

Click/tap here to download the free azfamily mobile app.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


  • Arizona's Family Weather BlogMore>>

  • When will it snow in Arizona?

    When will it snow in Arizona?

    Sunday, November 19 2017 8:27 PM EST2017-11-20 01:27:35 GMT
    (Source: NOAA.gov)(Source: NOAA.gov)

    Our above average summer and warmer than normal Fall are now beginning to trickle into our not so cold winter.

    More >

    Our above average summer and warmer than normal Fall are now beginning to trickle into our not so cold winter.

    More >
  • Meteor or meteorite? So which is it?

    Meteor or meteorite? So which is it?

    Thursday, November 16 2017 5:06 PM EST2017-11-16 22:06:16 GMT
    (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)(Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

    Here is your crash course on meteor 101!

    More >

    Here is your crash course on meteor 101!

    More >
  • Looking ahead: Early Thanksgiving forecast

    Looking ahead: Early Thanksgiving forecast

    Wednesday, November 15 2017 1:46 PM EST2017-11-15 18:46:13 GMT

    We're currently tied for the fourth warmest start to the month of November in Phoenix. Just a little over a week away from Thanksgiving, will Mother Nature finally give in and provide fall-like weather for the holiday?

    More >

    We're currently tied for the fourth warmest start to the month of November in Phoenix. Just a little over a week away from Thanksgiving, will Mother Nature finally give in and provide fall-like weather for the holiday?

    More >