California Wildfires and the Lightning Siege: How Unusual Is It?

Reposted from the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

California is burning and smoke has covered the northern half of the state and is spreading across the U.S.  Most of the fires were started by a huge “lightning siege” that started on August 15th.  How unusual was this massive lightning event?  That question will be answered below.

Smoke situation this morningThe situation this morning was extraordinary.  According to CALFire, more than 14,000 firefighters are dealing with 650 fires (two dozen major ones) that have burned over 1.25 million acres.  There have been 7 fire-related deaths and 1400 structures lost.The “lightning siege” over the past ten days has resulted in over 13,000 lightning strikes, many of which were from high-based thunderstorms that did not provide much rain to the surface (rain evaporated on the way down!).How unusual was this large number of lightning strikes in mid-August?The answer:  very unusual.When I want to get information about lightning statistics, I know where to go: Professor Robert Holzworth of UW ESS and Dr. Katrina Virts, a past associate of Dr. Holzworth who is now a NASA scientist.  Dr. Holzworth runs a major lightning network (WWLLN) and a lightning expert, and Dr. Virts is the Mozart of lightning statistics.Anyway, within of hours of inquiring about the situation, Dr. Virts sent me a graph showing 3-day lightning totals going back to late 2009 (below, click to enlarge).

The event that occurred last week was the sixth highest for that period, which is impressive by itself.  But there is more.  It was the greatest 3-day lightning total in the entire period during the midsummer (June-August) period.   So this was quite an extreme event to occur in the warm/dry California summer.  One that followed an extreme warm period with a record-breaking upper-level ridge of high pressure centered over southern Nevada.An important aspect of the unusual event was the ability to tap the moisture of tropical storm and move it into central California (producing the thunderstorms).  This is illustrated by the map below, which shows moisture around 10,000 ft (700 hPa pressure level) for 5 AM on August 17th.  The moisture levels getting into California were as much as 4-5 standard deviations from the normal.  Trust me…this is very, very unusual.  Like never happening before on that date.

Sometimes the atmosphere rolls the meteorological dice and gets two sixes.  And, of course, the slow warming of the atmosphere from increasing greenhouse gases, the spread of invasive, flammable grasses, and the huge influx of people into rural areas make things that much worse.On the other hand, there is very little smoke over Washington State and things look favorable over the next week.  I am becoming increasingly confident that Washington is going to dodge the wildfire bullet this summer.

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J Savage
August 26, 2020 6:17 am

Where does one go to school to become a “Mozart of lightening statistics”?

Reply to  J Savage
August 26, 2020 6:34 am

Where did Mozart go to school to become the world’s greatest composer?

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  commieBob
August 26, 2020 7:36 am

commieBob: You asked: “Where did Mozart go to school to become the world’s greatest composer?”

The answer is known with some exactness.

Mozart’s father Leopold was deputy Kapellmeister of the orchestra of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Austria. Leopold was also an experienced music teacher who published a violin textbook which was widely used.

When Mozart’s sister Nannerl was 7, she began keyboard lessons with her father, while her three-year-old brother looked on.

Years later, after her brother’s death, she reminisced: “He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good. … In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier. … He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time. … At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.”

This morning I am listening to one of Mozart’s last compositions: “La clemenza di Tito”, K. 621. here is the utterly glorious finale: “Tu, è ver, m’assolvi, Augusto”

Listen to it and understand why Western Civilzation should be lauded and preserved:

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

John F Hultquist
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 10:36 am

He was home-schooled then.

Next question: Who peered his work?

paul courtney
Reply to  John F Hultquist
August 26, 2020 11:35 am

John H. Lack of response indicates “not peer reviewed.” To a Cli Sci, the music is silent.

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  John F Hultquist
August 26, 2020 4:53 pm

“Next question: Who peered his work?”

Nobody. His work is peerless.

Reply to  Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 2:01 pm

You must be a riot at parties !

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  Richard Greene
August 26, 2020 4:55 pm

Like the sign in the men’s room at Jimmy’s tavern said: “We aim to please. You aim too, please.”

Brian Dingwall
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 4:53 pm

Thank you for that. One of my favorites. Also from Clemenza, outstanding and easily findable, Sextus aria (Elina Garanca) Parto parto, also her Deh, per questo istante solo (both for mezzo soprano), the duet Ah perdona al primo affeto (Garanca/Bonney is good), and of course S’altro che lagrime (soprano aria). An opera to be marvelled at. And Titus, in real life, was not so merciful as I understand it!

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  Brian Dingwall
August 26, 2020 5:02 pm

“And Titus, in real life, was not so merciful as I understand it!”

The arch of Titus, showing scenes of his triumph for the destruction of Jerusalem still stands in the Forum in Rome.

Gilbert and Sullivan explained the dilemma of kings:

But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than ever I do,

Mike G
Reply to  commieBob
August 26, 2020 8:38 am

Looks like a walter has seconded your question.

Larry Pierson
Reply to  J Savage
August 26, 2020 7:25 am

The name of the school is called “hard knocks”. You become a meteorologist, spend a decade or more working for some brilliant person with the people skills of a porcupine at a beach volleyball contest, and eventually you learn enough from them to strike out on your own and prove your worth by writing a thesis or three that are accepted by your peers.

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  J Savage
August 26, 2020 7:57 am

What many people do not realize, is that Mozart was the Joe Bastardi of musical composition.

F.LEGHORN in Alabama
Reply to  Nicholas McGinley
August 26, 2020 9:21 am

That’s what “Mozart” means in Polish.

David Wolcott
Reply to  J Savage
August 26, 2020 5:48 pm

Where does one go to school to learn the difference between “lightening” and lightning”?

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  David Wolcott
August 27, 2020 6:31 am


Craig James
August 26, 2020 6:17 am

When your period of record is only 11 years, it is pretty easy to set a record.

Bryan A
Reply to  Craig James
August 26, 2020 7:36 am

Yep…gotta love those Short Period Statistical Records

Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 6:22 am

” And, of course, the slow warming of the atmosphere from increasing greenhouse gases, the spread of invasive, flammable grasses, and the huge influx of people into rural areas make things that much worse.”

Lets dissect that shall we?
“And of course” implies that what follows is common knowledge and truth OR it may imply the opposite: sarcasm depending upon the audience and speaker. Given the audience is a newspaper and speaker needs more money, I’ll say the former in this case.

the slow warming of the atmosphere due to increased greenhouse gasses……taken on it’s own it makes sense only to those that believe we live under a dome called the firmament.

Invasive flammable grasses: all grass is flammable if it’s dry enough. What does invasive have to do with it? Implication that native grasses are not flammable when reduced to tinder dryness?

Huge influx of people into rural areas: Ah and there it is folks! The crux of the problem: PEOPLE.

IF people were not around to increase atmospheric gasses, introduce flammable grass where there was inflammable grass before or have the audacity to build a home in a beautiful place, there would be no problem with lightening strikes and wildfires.

Again, what a stupid statement to make. All 3 imply that humans are the reason for the lightening cluster strikes.

Charles Higley
Reply to  Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 7:05 am

“And, of course, the slow warming of the atmosphere from increasing greenhouse gases, ”

No gas at any concentration can warm the atmosphere. It’s a non-starter. CO2’s IR radiation emission peak is at -80 deg C, so it is always trying to bring the temperature of the atmosphere down, not up. It is basic thermodynamics.

The upper tropical troposphere is about -17 deg C and the surface at 15 deg C. The best CO2 could do is emit IR at -17 deg C and, in fact, it is only -80 deg C. Nothing on earth is colder than that and thus the CO2 IR will be reflected, as those energy levels are full at the surface, and lost to space.

Rainer Bensch
Reply to  Charles Higley
August 27, 2020 5:30 am

Radiation doesn’t obey thermodynamics. Otherwise, how would have Penzias and Wilson detected 3.5K cosmic background radiation with a Holmdel Horn Antenna? see:

F.LEGHORN in Alabama
Reply to  Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 9:26 am

Agree. Except “the firmament” means “where life can survive”. And it’s “lightning”, not “lightening”. Lightening happens every day at dawn.

Doc Chuck
Reply to  Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 10:36 am

Nice deconstruction of the self-loathing green climatic mumbo-jumbo, Jenn, that stood in the place of the operative etiology that should be flagged for next time it appears: A large plume of moisture brought northwards by the remnants of tropical storm Fausto that had dissipated over cooler waters as it moved northward off the Baja California coast generated multiple large thunderstorms across Northern California on August 16 and 17. These produced nearly 11,000 mostly dry lightning strikes with little rain that started 367 fires threatening many structures and forcing thousands of Californians to evacuate. There, corrected it for another clutch of what lately passes for our experts!

John F Hultquist
Reply to  Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 10:45 am

You do Cliff Mass a disservice.
The main idea is “Lightning Siege” – – unusual. Yes. Stop there.

However, we live very close to this one, so am aware of the idea.

Between 80%-90% of wildland fires in the Western USA are the result of things humans do.
An average of 10% are lighting.

Doc Chuck
Reply to  John F Hultquist
August 26, 2020 12:29 pm

No doubt we should take pains to avoid installing hot ‘lighting’ where it could set adjacent grasses aflame, but let’s also display sufficient consciousness of just how such a loathsome human presence (aside from you and me of course) in the western U.S. actually serves to prevent many an unrestrained conflagration. For one thing they do exhibit the annoying habit of stretching roadways across formerly pristine landscapes that happen to enable human firepersons to quickly access wildfires to curtail them by artifice. Likewise they’ll often cultivate large farmed acreages and fruit/nut orchards as well as reside nearby in neighborhoods with lawned parklands that function too as quite ‘unnatural’ fire breaks. So let’s at least entertain the grace to concede: Good on them, mate.

Reply to  Just Jenn
August 26, 2020 11:07 pm

You might want to read a little about the invasive (i.e. of foreign origin) grasses making a rather large fire hazard difference in the western U.S, if you really have an interest.

Just Jenn
Reply to  Just Jenn
August 29, 2020 7:50 am

Ok going to reply to all as I’ve been dealing with my own insane situation and stoopidity (intentionally spelled that way) of my ex (who’s a narcissist).

@ F.LEGHORN in Alabama : you are correct, I misspelled lightning. Thanks for pointing that out, it was not intentional but in lieu of the article, it would be hilarious if it was. HEE HEE.

@ Doc Chuck: thanks! In my mind all of their arguments for Human Caused Catastrophe is the it from climate change of which we have no control to hurricanes to a Derecho of mass destruction: it’s the same argument humans are the destroyer, unnatural, egotistic and if we just learned that, we’d all be creators, living in harmony, singing Kumbaya and experiencing Utopia. Totally ridiculous.

@ AndyHce my point wasn’t about the flammability of invasive species, it was to point out that phrased as it was, it implies and only native species are not flammable. To your point, invasive grass species may be more flammable, but like any other invasive species, they will evolve to flourish and become native or they will not and die out. We define a species as invasive. I remember asking at what point does an invasive species become native to my ecology professor–his answer? When we define it to be, remember 1 man’s weed may be another man’s flower.

Reply to  Just Jenn
August 29, 2020 8:24 am

“When we define it to be”
Just Jean
Because of the ice ages, in Europe, where the main mountain ranges run east-west, we suffer from a dearth of trees species with many populations trapped in the Mediterranean region or even North Africa (The Atlas Cedar for example). Islands typically have fewer species than an adjacent mainland, the species area effect so in Britain it is no accident that the number of extant evergreens (gymnosperms) is three – the Scots pine (a paleo-arctic species), the Yew and the Juniper and that’s it.
We have evidence from coring in peat that in previous inter-glacials the Norway Spruce grew naturally in eastern England. So should the introduced Norway Spruce, which now thrives here, be classed as an alien or as a rescued returnee? Its all a matter of view. Nature in the meantime is getting on with the serious business of living.

p.s. Don’t even think of mentioning the hated Rhododendron introduced from Turkey (same story as the Norway spruce).

August 26, 2020 6:27 am

Thank you Cliff Mass

Is the fire situation also unusual?

Here is some data Paul Homewood found

August 26, 2020 6:29 am

In March 1980 I was in Tunisia on field trip based at the college in Sousse. I vividly remember an early evening thunderstorm that drifted south over the plain of Kairouan. The descending rain never reached the ground and the lightening bolts made huge spectacular U-shapes above us as they followed the virga down into the dry air before tuning back up into an adjacent cloud.

Charles Higley
Reply to  Philip Mulholland
August 26, 2020 7:08 am

A good 90% of lightning is horizontal and at altitude, largely only visible from space. Clouds lose electrons to falling water and gain different amounts of positive charge. Two clouds with different positive charges will generate lightning between them.

Earth’s surface is leaking negative charge constantly back to altitude, which lightning being simply a violent means of moving it quickly.

Reply to  Charles Higley
August 26, 2020 7:22 am

“Two clouds with different positive charges will generate lightning between them”
Thanks Charles,
That makes sense. Coming from rain soaked Blighty, my first trip to Africa provided me with a new perspective. Being able to see a lightning storm in dry air from below with a 5,000 plus foot cloud base (estimated from the Jebels to the north) was a memorable experience.

Reply to  Charles Higley
August 26, 2020 7:32 am

Yeah, your post was in moderation when I posted below. The horizontal bolts looked like they were miles in length. The bolts that were hitting the ground made a lot more noise. I’m guessing that’s a well-understood phenomenon?

Reply to  philincalifornia
August 26, 2020 7:47 am


You can make a reasonable estimate of the length of the bolt if you use the rule of thumb that sound in air travels at 5 miles per second. So an overhead flash with an instantaneous crack followed by a 15 second rumble gives you 3 miles. This is going to be a minimum length estimate as here in the UK I typically never heard rumbles from distant flashes after counting for 25 seconds.

Reply to  Philip Mulholland
August 26, 2020 9:08 am

1,100 feet per second is the speed of sound.

Reply to  Randy
August 26, 2020 2:13 pm

Thanks Randy.
I wrote the ratio the wrong way round. My Bad
I of course meant to say that sound takes 5 seconds per mile.
We do this all the time in borehole seismic logs recording time per distance.
My calculation that 15 seconds delay in receiving the sound equals a distance of 3 miles is correct

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Philip Mulholland
August 26, 2020 9:25 am

Uhhhhh, no. I do not understand why people are always getting this wrong. The speed of sound at sea level is 1,116 feet/sec or about 1/5 of a mile per second. So, when you see the flash, count the seconds, and divide by 5 for the approximate distance in miles.

Reply to  D. J. Hawkins
August 26, 2020 9:41 am

Quite right.
Five seconds per mile.
My bad.

A C Osborn
August 26, 2020 6:40 am

So absolutely nothing to do with the wavy jetstream then.

A C Osborn
August 26, 2020 6:42 am
Moderately Cross of East Anglia
August 26, 2020 6:46 am

Well if we are going in for personal recollections the worst thunderstorm I ever experienced was in the early 1950s when a storm rolled in from the English Channel and parked itself over the coastal town I lived in. For the next several hours there was a continuous, unrelenting, display of spectacular multi-coloured lightning, which was deafening on top of all the other features. Haven’t seen anything like it again. Doubtless needs a revision to a category mild breeze to match today’s narrative.

Reply to  Moderately Cross of East Anglia
August 26, 2020 7:21 am

Yeah, I was in this first one in the early morning, I had made a commitment to a colleague to deal with an experiment he was running at the lab (that’s my excuse anyway, it’s better than admitting idiocy – a theory proposed by my girlfriend) and, as I was driving East across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I was looking at huge bolts, some going horizontal, cloud to cloud, and some going vertical, cloud to land. Never seen that before.

Reply to  philincalifornia
August 26, 2020 8:57 am

In a meso-convective cluster over WV & southwest VA in the mid-1980s I saw huge blue-green lightning bolts striking horizontally between anvil clouds prb’ly separated by 20 miles.

Reply to  beng135
August 26, 2020 9:32 am

Wow beng. Roughly what time of day?

Reply to  Philip Mulholland
August 27, 2020 6:50 am

IIRC around 8 pm in July 1985. Never seen bolts go horizontally between separate anvil clouds over so long a distance. Also saw one time an expended anvil cloud where almost all the cloud had rained out then evaporated and the flat-topped high-elevation anvil was all that was left, yet lightening and thunder were occurring within it.

Reply to  beng135
August 27, 2020 9:54 am

Thanks, I was expecting that low sun angle may have been a contributing factor in some way.

Mark A Luhman
Reply to  philincalifornia
August 26, 2020 9:43 am

Have you ever watch thunder storms before. Most lighting goes from clod to cloud some goes to the ground, at least in the parts of the country I have lived in. I use to watch the thunderstorms mile away silent lighting up the sky, to far to see ground strikes(due to the curvature of the earth) by all you saw from cloud to cloud.

Doc Chuck
Reply to  Mark A Luhman
August 26, 2020 12:53 pm

Mark, I’ve got to salute your particularly excellent eyesight (well, except for scanning over your typing once or twice before hitting ‘Post Comment’). That quick ‘clod to cloud’ directed pre-strike lightning leader is ordinarily pretty hard to spot preceding the immediately following much brighter cloud to surface bolt.

Ron Long
August 26, 2020 7:03 am

OK, what was the key element in the composite circumstances that produced lightening-strike fires in central Kalifornia? The stalled high pressure over southern Nevada. These events are sometimes called “heat domes”, and they heat/dry everything up. Then circulate in some moisture to form thunderstorms, fire off lightening bolts into an overheated/mismanaged environment, and get a lot of fires. Which of these elements can people control? The mismanagement part. Hello?

Jude Richardson
Reply to  Ron Long
August 26, 2020 8:02 am

As a Forester I learned the leading cause of western wildfires is lightning. Severity of these wildfires is proportional to poor forest and land management. Environmental regulations too often conflict with recommended management of the Wildland Interface and the “Wild” forest.

August 26, 2020 7:04 am

Mike Shellenberger on Twitter: “Area burned in California has declined over 80% since Europeans arrived.”

Prehistoric annual average acres burned: 4,447,897. 2010-2019 average acres burned: 775,325.

Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 7:13 am

God is trying to tell Californians something. But, like Pharaoh their hearts are hardened and they will not listen.

Here is the way it should be:

“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published it through Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands.Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

Jonah 3:4-10

Reply to  Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 7:26 am

Right then, someone needs to tell Nancy Pelosi to go live in a homeless camp for a few days. I’ll drive her there.

F.LEGHORN in Alabama
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
August 26, 2020 9:34 am

Truth . And way more believable than today’s eco-marxists.

Hokey Schtick
August 26, 2020 8:59 am

“It was the greatest 3-day lightning total in the entire period during the midsummer (June-August) period.”

Well, one 3-day period in there somewhere has to be the greatest. So it was this one. Rather than another one.

jude richardson
Reply to  Hokey Schtick
August 26, 2020 4:00 pm


F.LEGHORN in Alabama
August 26, 2020 9:17 am

Records that go all the way back to 2009? We’re doomed I tell you. We’re doomed!

August 26, 2020 9:48 am

Should there be a /sarc tag at the end of this article? It seems to me one is missing.

Come back and tell us more once you have some meaningful data.

August 26, 2020 10:16 am

SNAFU just a normal occurrence.

Mike Dubrasich
August 26, 2020 12:35 pm

On June 20 and 21, 2008, dry lightning raked California. Over 3,500 fires were ignited and nearly a million acres burned in a month. Most of those fires were contained, but nearly 40 were still burning outside containment lines in mid-July.

Some became mega-fires, defined as over 100,000 acres. These included the Lime Complex Fires, the SHU/Shasta Trinity Lightning Complex Fires, Iron Complex Fires, and the Basin Complex Fire.

So no, lightning sieges in California are rare but not “very unusual”. Mr. Mass got that wrong.

Eric Eikenberry
August 26, 2020 12:38 pm

Ok, as a rank amateur, I follow the desert monsoon season avidly, since I live nearly at ground zero and have a less-than-healthy interest in lightning photographs. The issue with this story is a decided lack of understanding how the desert monsoon season works, how the CIRCULAR high pressure system sets up and dominates the importation of low and mid-level moisture from northern Mexico and the Gulf of California, and WHY that has not happened this year. There has been only a high pressure RIDGE over the SW Desert area most all of this season, from early July onward. Only briefly has the flattened ridge evolved into a round circulation, and then only for a few days at most, and not for the typical several weeks at a time. Therefore, the moisture drawn from Mexico has traveled north and eastward along the western edge of the ridge, winding up farther north than it usually does. It is NOT atypical that this moisture arrives each year, only that it was transported northward to NV and central/northern CA, then westward almost to the coast, where the clash with the cooler Pacific air caused the dramatic storms to manifest into lightning-producing powerhouses. Ordinarily, the moisture would wrap around the circular high pressure in a clockwise fashion, until eventually the temperature of the atmosphere has evened out enough to break down the high pressure. As I understand it, this season has seen a strong blocking high over the central US, which has squished our “Four Corners High” into a ridge-like shape, with very little moisture being wrapped around the narrow top end of the high being brought southward again over NM. The SW Deserts have been in a very low-grade monsoon as a result, meaning my little town in SoCal has yet to even see a thunderstorm, let alone a serious drop of rain. Furthermore, because of the warmth in the mid-levels here, storms die off AS SOON AS the SUN goes down as the temps needed to support uplift (114-115) simply are no longer there. Farther north, where the air mass off the Pacific is much cooler at the 500 mb heights, storms will erupt with alarming ferocity because the hot, moist airmass from down south is ridiculously unstable in that environment. Had you looked at the nicely-provided 700 hPa map, and noted the presence of an early fall-type low pressure system sitting off the western coast of Canada, you would have noticed that the combination of the ridge motion on its Southwest-to-Northeast orientation combined WITH the atypical early season low pressure to wick the moisture OFF OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN into the NorCal area. Ergo, it is not the “slow increase of greenhouse gases” or any other form of anthropomorphized bovine scatology which caused this weather event. In fact, this indicates a cooling northern Pacific, sending an cold, upper-level low-pressure system southward very early, combined with a clear jet streak funneling the moisture-rich between the two pressure systems just like a funnel. I would expect Dr. Lightning Mozart of NASA to do a better job of explaining this to the “Cliff Mass Climate Blog” individual. One simply does not get massive lightning-producing thunderstorms without the presence of cold air or else the SoCal and SoAZ deserts would simply be rife with firestorms every single July and August.

In layman’s terms; what the hello is an upper level Low doing so far south at this time of year?!?!

This is only what is referred to as a “seasonal variation”, not a global climate-created catastrophe. If anything it indicates that there is a cooling process happening at points far away from the conveniently-situated NWS stations near population-generated heat-islands. Stories like this make my blood boil, and not just because its 115 here again today!

Pat Frank
August 26, 2020 3:56 pm

And, of course, the slow warming of the atmosphere from increasing greenhouse gases …” — the genuflection to consensus orthodoxy required of all CliScis.

It’s Critical Climate Theory, the subjectivist narrative of a corrupted field — a scientific crock. A pseudo-science more elegant than any other, decorated with mathematics.

August 26, 2020 6:10 pm
August 26, 2020 6:40 pm

Lightning … what causes it? Seems settled that it is caused by a buildup of differing electrical potential between clouds, cloud and ground, or different elevation within the same cloud system. I buy that. I’ve read it is caused by friction in falling rain . Crappy theory to me. I’ve read that falling rain and rising ice colliding causes electrons to be stripped away causing a potential (electrical) difference. I view that like the ‘friction’ hypothesis, crappy.

What I haven’t read is the electrical potential generated by a phase change in H2O from vapor to liquid and then from liquid to ice.

Prior to my posting this my computer crashed and I lost everything. I was preparing to submit a posting to WUWT with numerous reference sources noting changes in electron counts/energy (I probably didn’t state that correctly) as a result of a phase change. Anyway, I was focused on the potential capacitance of layers at elevation in clouds as well as the ground for the generation of lightning. A rising column of air in one portion of a cloud with a falling column of air in another region causing opposite phase changes could result in inter-cloud horizontal lightning. As more stratified layers could cause more vertical in cloud lightning.

Anyway it’s going to be a while before I can get a decent computer and try to recover something from my old hard drive and cooler weather is on the way some time for hard work so I just thought I’d throw this out however ill prepared. There is a lot occurring in the phase change of water in the atmosphere with differing pressure/temp as well as the fact that the phase change is a wide boundary and not a fine narrow line.

Reply to  eyesonu
August 27, 2020 2:59 am

“What I haven’t read is the electrical potential generated by a phase change in H2O from vapor to liquid and then from liquid to ice.”
Nice comment.
I look forward to reading your work.

Eric Eikenberry
Reply to  eyesonu
August 28, 2020 11:09 am

This theory was posted as far back as 1997 online, when I was still working out how to do lightning photography with my old (still-functioning) Minolta film camera. I don’t buy into the static electricity theory, nor “rain drop friction”, nor “colliding ice”. From my visual observations of desert storms, change of state is the only theory which explains the differing types of lightning which occur at distinctly different points in a storm cell’s life cycle.

As I remember it, it’s been a while and I don’t think the original website still exists, the bottom of the cloud is positive, the middle of the cloud tower is negative, and the top positive again. Internal cloud to cloud is either negative-to-positive or positive-to negative, depending on whether a cell is growing (condensing) or thinning (evaporating). Cloud-to-ground is always negative, but can go either to the base of the cloud or to the top, and are usually the more massive discharges. I have even identified what I refer to as “sheet lightning” whereby the lightning channel passes through a heavy downpour without apparent branching to strike in a cloud-to-ground manner. Certain “‘cloudburst” or “microburst” conditions must be met before this occurs, and the local relative humidity must be very high within the microburst.

Early bursts of lightning within a growing cell are almost always internal in the cloud as the condensing water boils upwards while the outside edges of the cloud are evaporating constantly at the top. This phase lasts roughly 15 minutes. A mature T-cell produces impressive cloud to ground strikes which feature impressive branching before it begins to collapse (if there’s not enough forward motion for the storm to become self-sustaining with inflow and outflow areas of the thunderstorm). As the microburst begins, the weight of the downrushing air produces a pressure wave which rolls outward from the storm’s center, followed closely by the rain shaft reaching the ground. Cloud-to-ground strikes after this start to lose their branches, but tend to become multiple-strike events, with as many as 5 or more which strikes discharging one area more effectively, for a period of around 15 minutes. If there’s no rainshaft, there will still be an outflow of much dryer, cold wind, and the lightning will remain fully branched until the air below the cloud has dried significantly, at which point the CG lightning effectively ceases and CC lightning dominates the evaporative portion of the storm cycle, the final 15 minutes. In all about 45 minutes of activity for a single thunderstorm cell. If there’s less humidity, or less forcing, this total length can be ridiculously shortened as the cell “starves” for new inflow once the colder downflow from about chokes off hot, moist air from entering at the bottom. This leaves the floating “anvils” of fine ice crystals that we see long after the bottom column has fully evaporated. it’s fascinating to watch and photograph, and the forecast says there’s a good chance of this happening this weekend where I live, so I’m stoked!

Anyway, the change of state from vapor to water to ice and back again is more than capable of powering lightning on the massive scale presented in a thunderstorm cell. God’s own giant batteries!

Reply to  Eric Eikenberry
August 28, 2020 11:51 am

Great comment.

Reply to  Eric Eikenberry
August 28, 2020 5:26 pm


Thank you for your comment! First I have seen on the idea with regards to phase change and lightning. You seem to be way ahead of me but we are on the same page! Please give serious consideration to posting lead post on this. You have my support and likely others will join in the comments.

I started looking into this a couple of years ago while trying to grasp the effect of LWIR heating the bottom of a cloud and the phase change dynamics really caught my attention. That dark cloud bottom is more than just a shadow. LWIR is being generated from the actual ground surface (130- 150F) and is emitted in a hemispherical manner. The capture at a point on that cloud is from a huge ground area, especially as the ‘cloud’ develops forward. The downpour is the collapsing portion of the cloud. The action is in the leading/advancing edge and is not yet identified on radar. Phase change in the extreme you might say. The vapor is trying to condense but being heated from below. Quite dynamic and possibly pulsating behavior.

Anthony and/or mods: offer my email address to Eric. I will send secure email address to CR or AW

Eric: my computer crashed and I got a $300 W-Mart special w/Win-S for temporary internet. At this point I don’t have access to my email but I will try to find time to make that happen.

Reply to  eyesonu
August 29, 2020 1:35 am

Eric is on to something.
There is a potential technology here.

Eric Eikenberry
Reply to  eyesonu
August 31, 2020 9:28 am

LWIR from the ground cannot possible reach a cloud base. It’s absorbed by the surface layer just above the earth. Fairly sure it dissipates rapidly in air (which makes “an excellent insulator” if I remember my high school science well enough). Perhaps someone on WUWT can confirm? Besides, cloud bases often occur under overcast skies which would severely limit your 130-150F ground surface temps. On a humid day in the desert (only 33% relative humidity, <65F degree dew point) the 155F degree pavement temp has a difficult time warming the surface level above 110F. Water vapor IS what dissipates the LWIR, which is why heated air can hold more WV.

The leading edge cannot ever be seen by radar, which can only judge reflections from water droplets or ice crystals or hail. Radar judges motion and density. It does not contain enough water in motion to be seen. I suspect that the "harder" looking clouds are still water vapor, while the "softer" ones are ice. The greater surface area of ice crystals makes them subject to increased movement by the air, whereas the water droplets (less surface area) are harder to move around, so they have to be transported by a more violent updraft.

The downpour can form before any part of the cloud collapses so long as the storm has both inflow and outflow channels; see "mesocyclone" or "convective vortex". Not all thunderstorms have motion, especially here in the southwest, as they are not linked to frontal boundaries colliding but rather orographic lifting overcoming the mid-level cap, or from pressure waves in the low/mid level flow caused by more distant storms pumping a huge weight of WV into the higher levels of the atmosphere. As they move away from the "lift" which caused them, they transition into outflow-dominated and quickly dissipate in the mid/low levels, leaving only the anvil of fine ice crystals floating away.

The vapor doesn't "try to condense". It changes state when the air temperature lowers to the point that it can no longer contain the water vapor. This is why the "dew point" is a valuable measurement. It tells you the height at which a cloud base will form. Inside a tornado the angular change of momentum and the super-low local pressure artificially drop the temps rapidly enough to force condensation to occur in a heat and moisture-rich environment rather spontaneously. Think of the wing tips of a fighter jet at low altitude in the summer, causing swirls of condensation just from the low pressure following its passage. This just doesn't occur in a cloud base. It's all temperature forcing there.

As a side note, have you ever seen the heavy lightning associated with a tornado-producing thunderstorm? I have. It's unforgettable at night!

BTW-this phase-state change theory has been around for decades on the web. Since at least 1998 I believe although the website is probably long gone.

In a way the phase-state change theory probably explains why Cosmic Rays cause high cloud formation. The CR bombards a stable upper atmosphere which is full of microscopic ice crystals (the upper end remnant of our water vapor cycle), energizing, or warming them, forcing the ice to melt to water, which immediately condenses in the frigid temps. Because the droplets cling to each other before refreezing, they go from invisible to visible. There's no net increase in total water vapor; it's merely collected into larger droplets before being frozen again. *Poof* Instant cloud.

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