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>>

  • Running with pride at Pat's Run

    Running with pride at Pat's Run

    Saturday, April 21 2018 1:16 AM EDT2018-04-21 05:16:53 GMT

    It’s a big weekend here in the Valley as we celebrate the life of Pat Tillman and honor him and raise money for military members. I will be running with pride this weekend, after my brother Erich’s promotion that took place in Washington DC.

    More >

    It’s a big weekend here in the Valley as we celebrate the life of Pat Tillman and honor him and raise money for military members. I will be running with pride this weekend, after my brother Erich’s promotion that took place in Washington DC.

    More >
  • If you're missing the rain in Phoenix, we have some bad news

    If you're missing the rain in Phoenix, we have some bad news

    Thursday, April 19 2018 2:56 PM EDT2018-04-19 18:56:42 GMT
    Rain is pretty much non-existent in Phoenix in May and June as we patiently await the arrival of the monsoon. (Source: AP File Photo)Rain is pretty much non-existent in Phoenix in May and June as we patiently await the arrival of the monsoon. (Source: AP File Photo)
    Phoenix is both the county seat of Maricopa County and the capital of Arizona (Source: AP File Photo)Phoenix is both the county seat of Maricopa County and the capital of Arizona (Source: AP File Photo)

    The start of this year has been pretty rough when it comes to rain!

    More >

    The start of this year has been pretty rough when it comes to rain!

    More >
  • Do you know what to do in an Arizona dust storm?

    Do you know what to do in an Arizona dust storm?

    Sunday, April 15 2018 5:38 PM EDT2018-04-15 21:38:51 GMT
    It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. (Source: ADOT)It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. (Source: ADOT)
    It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. (Source: ADOT)It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. (Source: ADOT)

    It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. So if you are caught driving in a dust storm, do you know what to do? 

    More >

    It isn't quite the monsoon season but that doesn't mean we won't see nasty dust storms in Arizona. So if you are caught driving in a dust storm, do you know what to do? 

    More >