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Breakdown: Why hurricanes don’t produce much lightning

Published: Jul. 11, 2021 at 10:36 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - When you think of lightning, you think of a thunderstorm. Many people also assume that hurricanes have a lot of lightning because they are made up of hundreds of thunderstorms.

However, hurricanes do not typically produce lightning. Why not?

To answer simply as possible, thunder and lightning that commonly occur with thunderstorms is result of rising air taking rain drops into high levels, where temperatures are cold enough for ice to form in the tops of the cumulonimbus clouds.

In the developing stage, rising air called “updrafts” are dominant in this stage and towering...
In the developing stage, rising air called “updrafts” are dominant in this stage and towering cumulus clouds form. This type of cloud is also known as a cumulus congestus. Next is the mature stage where the towering cumulus becomes a cumulonimbus cloud featuring both updrafts and “downdrafts” or sinking air.(NWS)

Within thunderclouds, vertical winds cause ice crystals and water droplets (called “hydrometeors”) to bump together. This “rubbing” causes the hydrometeors to become charged. Winds and gravity separate the charged hydrometeors, producing an enormous electric field within the storm. This is the source of lightning.

Lighting within hurricanes is rare because they lack vertical winds that cause water and ice to rub together reducing the chance for lightning to occur. A hurricane’s winds are mostly horizontal. Also, hurricanes are “warm core” tropical systems meaning there is little, or no cold air aloft for water and ice to rub together.

Cross section of a typical hurricane.
Cross section of a typical hurricane.(NWS)

That’s not to say hurricanes never have lightning.

In some of the stronger hurricanes, like the Category 4s and 5s, lightning and thunder can be observed, as was the case with Matthew (2016), in which some lightning was detected around the eyewall.

Additionally, scientists detected lightning in the eye of Hurricane Georges in 1998 as it plowed over the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The lightning likely was due to air forced upward -- called “orographic forcing” -- when the hurricane hit the mountains. Hurricanes are most likely to produce lightning when they’re making landfall.

In 2005, a team of scientists flew high above Category 4 Rita, and Category 5 Hurricanes Katrina and Emily, where they observed and studied mysteriously, above-normal cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning.

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