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‘Megaflash’ of lightning in Gulf of Mexico went 477 miles, breaking world record

Published on: 02/17/2022

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A ‘megaflash’ of lightning set a world record in the Gulf of Mexico on April 29, 2020, when it spanned 477 miles in the clouds from Texas to Mississippi.

While the flash happened nearly two years ago, the World Meteorological Organization just announced this month that it had broken the record. The previous largest was a flash in southern Brazil that spanned 440.6 miles on Halloween 2018.

Satellite image from April 29, 2020, shows what has now been determined as the world's largest 'megaflash' of lightning. [ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ] The record-breaking megaflash in the Gulf covered a distance equivalent to that between St. Petersburg and Atlanta.

Despite its length, the flash didn’t quite reach the Florida panhandle. But Richard Rude of the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office says he wouldn’t be surprised if future flashes did, considering Florida has the second-most lightning strikes per square kilometer in the country behind Oklahoma.

For lightning to be considered a megaflash, it has to span more than 100 kilometers and last at least five seconds. This burst of electricity is considered a “cloud-to-cloud” event, however, the World Meteorological Organization says flashes can also trigger cloud-to-ground strikes.

“Megaflashes are different. They’re enormous,” wrote Meteorologist Matthew Cappucci of the Washington Post . “ They snake through regions of high electric field and can travel for hundreds of miles while lasting more than 10 seconds.”

Cappucci writes that megaflashes may happen more often than previously thought. The Geostationary Operational Environmental satellites East and West, both of which were introduced in 2016 , have instruments that are able to discern the infrared signal associated with a lightning flash. These instruments allow for the tracking of cloud-to-cloud and intracloud flashes from 22,236 miles above earth.

Rude says the Weather Service does not track megaflashes around Tampa Bay but that doesn’t mean they’re not present occasionally. He said these types of flashes do not pose a threat to people on the ground but could to airplanes.

Several cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can be seen in the distance as a storm moves out toward the Gulf of Mexico Friday, July 19, 2019 over Boca Ciega Bay. According to AccuWeather, Florida averages 3,500 cloud to ground lightning flashes per day and 1.2 million flashes per year. More people get struck and killed by lightning in Florida than any other state. SCOTT KEELER | Times [ SCOTT KEELER | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ] “The real threat is that these are probably coming along with severe weather, which brings cloud-to-ground lightning as well,” Rude said.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society first published the megaflash record on Feb. 1.

A new record for the longest duration of a megaflash was also included in the report: A flash lasted for 17 seconds between a portion of Argentina and Uruguay in June 2020, the longest ever. By comparison, the Gulf of Mexico flash lasted just under nine seconds.

Both record-breaking flashes occurred during severe thunderstorms in areas considered hotspots for Mesoscale Convective System thunderstorms — the type of storms that breeds lightning strikes.

Scientists determined the new records after analyzing archived satellite footage of the events, the World Meteorological Organization said in a news release.

“Lightning is a major hazard that claims many lives every year,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement. “The findings highlight important public lightning safety concerns for electrified clouds where flashes can travel extremely large distances.”

WMO has verified 2 new world records for ⚡️⚡️lightning in notorious #megaflash hotspots

Longest distance single flash of 768 km (477.2 miles) across southern #USA on 29.4.2020

Greatest duration of 17.102 seconds over #Uruguay and northern #Argentina on 18.6.2020 @NOAA pic.twitter.com/ijPXXue0bD

— World Meteorological Organization (@WMO) February 1, 2022

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