A study conducted this month found superbolts to be one thousand times stronger than regular lightning bolts. Their occurrence is unpredictable and has left scientists baffled.
Other than being one thousand times more powerful than the common lightening bolt, superbolts also occur at different times and locations. Researchers from the University of Washington analysed data gathered by the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) which covered two billion lighting strikes from 2010 to 2018, and results are fascinating.
Areas with humid climates should, in theory, produce the strongest thunderstorms. High humidity coupled with warm temperatures creates large amounts of moist air, which then rises into the colder atmosphere. This concoction of moist air and conflicting temperatures is the perfect recipe for a powerful storm. While this theory might explain common thunderstorms, it doesn’t shed light the phenomenon of superblots.
Superbolts are particularly deadly, with the ability to strike 16 kilometers away from active thunderstorms. Actually, numerous forest fires have been started by superbolts, and remained ablaze due to the distance between storm and strike (showers that fall 16 kilometers away from a fire are quite useless in the extinguishing process). May 2012 saw residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma woken up by about 15 seconds of “earthquake-like shaking”. One eyewitness claimed that her bed shifted 1.4 meters during the event. The national weather service later identified the disruption as a series of superbolts in quick succession.
In order to identify and study superbolts, researchers shifted their attention to strikes that generated at least a thousand times more energy than the average crack in the sky. These supercharged instances were then compared to regular lightening in order to trace commonalities, differences and trends. Results reaped some unexpected patterns.
Normal lightning is ten times more likely to strike over land than water, and is concentrated over the ‘Three Chimney’s’ (the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South East Asia). Strangely, none of these locations were subjected to the forces of superbolts. Research findings indicate that superbolts commonly occur over areas of water, going right up to coastlines. Regions with particularly strong activity are Japan, and coastlines along the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Superbolts are also unique in terms of how they strike. Regular lightning storms hit the Three Chimneys in Summer. Superbolts however, occur more so in the Northern hemisphere and take place between the colder months of November and February.
The frequency of superbolt strikes has left scientist baffled. Late 2013 saw an all time high in activity, with 2014 following just behind. Before 2013 and after 2014 however, far fewer instances occurred. Despite this rather focused timeline, scientists have struggled to attribute a cause to the sudden spike, making it almost impossible to accurately predict superbolt behavior and what initiates or interludes them. Lead researcher, Robert Holzworth, mentioned that such strange patterns could be related to sunspots or cosmic rays. Further research, however, isn’t on the cards for now. Scientists seem to be satisfied with the fact that they have been able to spot patterns previously unknown.