Striking Lightning Facts

A lighting strike from a storm that was dropping an EF-2 tornado in upstate New York in May 2013.

A lightning strike from a storm that was dropping an EF-2 tornado in upstate New York in May 2013.

What comes first, lightning or thunder?

The lightning itself actually causes thunder, so they occur at the same time. Since the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light, we usually do not hear the thunder until afterwards. (The thunder has time to travel from the strike to our ears)

I heard thunder, so how far away was the lightning strike?
A good estimation is that for every five (5) seconds, the distance is one (1) mile. Where does this come from? The speed of sound is 344 meters per second, which is about 0.2 miles per second. When you multiply 0.2 by 5, you get 1.0. Keep in mind that we are talking about the speed of sound, assuming the air is dry. Since thunderstorms are generally not dry, the exact speed of sound may be slightly different than this approximation.

How hot is lightning?
Well, it’s beyond the scope of human comprehension. The air temperature can reach 100 degrees…you cook food at 450 degrees…so how hot is lightning? Let’s try 30,000 degrees or hotter. Ouch.

What are the odds of being struck by lightning?
The answer may surprise you. Assuming you live in the U.S. and live to be 80 years old, the odds are about 1 in 10,000. Let’s stop and think about this for a second. The population of New Haven, CT is about 130,000. That means that based on these odds, 13 people in New Haven alone could be struck by lightning. Watch out!

Lightning doesn’t always strike the ground.
A very common phenomena is actually cloud-to-cloud lightning. Sometimes lightning can start at the ground and move up to a cloud as well.

Heat lightning is NOT REAL.
The concept of heat lightning is actually an old wive’s tale. If you are out on a lake in the middle of a summer night and think you are seeing lightning caused by heat, think again. The easy answer is that on clear nights the visibility can be really good. This means you could see lightning from a storm that is 50+ miles away.

Lightning can strike the same exact spot many times.
Take the Empire State Building for example. On an average year, the tower is struck by lightning 23 times!

Lightning strikes are usually not deadly.
Take this stat with a side of caution. Statistically speaking, only about 10% of people who have been struck by lightning die. With that said, always take shelter during a thunderstorm and avoid being struck by lightning at all costs.

What is the best way to stay safe from lightning?
Get inside of a safe building or car. It will be safe if it is closed off, so an example of an unsafe building would be baseball dugout and an unsafe vehicle would be a golf cart.

What if you are out in a field or at the beach?
Stay away from conductors of electricity, such as water, trees and metal. The best idea is to crawl up into a small ball. Lying down increases your surface area, so that’s why it’s better to make yourself “smaller” by curling up.

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Quincy is a meteorologist and storm chaser who travels around the country documenting and researching severe weather. He has on-air experience with stations such as WTNH-TV in New Haven, CT and WREX-TV in Rockford, IL. He was most recently a digital meteorologist for After achieving his B.S. degree in Meteorology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in 2009, he returned as a University Assistant to help produce weather broadcasts. He also gave guest lectures and worked on website design. He has over nine years of professional weather forecasting experience and his forecasts have been featured in newspapers and on radio stations in multiple states.

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