Smoke enhanced lightning show in Thursday’s storms


(WOWK) — The strong and severe thunderstorms seen in the region on Thursday night likely received a boost in terms of lightning from the recent presence of smoke from Canadian wild fires.

Numerous viewers remarked to StormTracker 13 that the lightning seemed more numerous and more intense than normal. We investigated a little closer and saw evidence of what the viewers were saying.

We also noticed that there were more positive strikes than normal and we witnessed positive strikes 26 to 34 miles AHEAD of the rain column which is not a frequent occurrence in this region.

Knowing that lightning occurs in the presence of ash and dust we checked our thought process about smoke adding to electrical charge through microphysical processes and found we were right. It’s a theory meteorologists study but since this area does not often experience such smoke, it’s not a common occurrence.

A study by MIT going back to the 1990s first talked about the connection between the presence of smoke in the Plains from wildfires in other areas and increased positively charged lightning strikes.

The smoke that migrated up the Mississippi River valley “appeared to have a substantial influence on the electrical characteristics of thunderstorms over the central United States,” said Earle Williams, principal research scientist in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Parsons Laboratory at MIT. “In some way, the smoke from these fires significantly altered the electrical characteristics of a wide variety of storm types during all phases of their life cycles.

MIT News october 1998

Far more recent studies confirm our notions that the storms really did pack an extra punch from the presence of smoke from wild fires even several hundred miles away including a recent study from Australia that shows, “…that lightning strokes increase considerably, by 73% over land and 270% over ocean, during the wildfire season.” That study with details on how the process works can be found here.

We anticipate some clearing of the smoke but with more northwest winds expected, we also expect to see more smoke return in the coming days. We don’t have any severe storms in the short term forecast but we will monitor the presence of smoke for the chance of enhanced lightning in the future.

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