Lightning bolt breaks record for longest ever recorded

A lightning "mapper" on the GOES-16 satellite captured images of the megaflash lightning bolt on April 29, 2020, over the southeastern U.S.
A lightning "mapper" on the GOES-16 satellite captured images of the megaflash lightning bolt on April 29, 2020, over the southeastern U.S. (Image credit: NOAA)

Two storms in 2020 set two new records for lightning, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced today (Feb. 1). 

One record was for longest single bolt, a record captured by a flash of lightning that stretched for about 477 miles (168 kilometers) from Texas to Mississippi during a storm on April 29, 2020. That's about the same distance between New York City and Columbus, Ohio. 

The second record was for longest-duration bolt, which went to a flash that lit up the sky for an impressive 17.1 seconds during a storm on June 18, 2020, over Uruguay and northern Argentina. 

The bolt that broke the record for length beat out the previous record-holder, a 440-mile-long (709 km) bolt that occurred during a storm in southern Brazil in 2018. The previous record-holder for duration also occurred in northern Argentina and lasted 16.73 seconds. It happened in March 2019. 

"It is likely that even greater extremes still exist, and that we will be able to observe them as lightning detection technology improves," Randall Cerveny, a professor of geography at Arizona State University and rapporteur of Weather and Climate Extremes for WMO, said in a statement.

Lightning observation is changing as technology gets better. Previous records were detected by ground-based instruments known as lightning mapping arrays. But new satellite observers are allowing researchers a bird's-eye view of storms over huge distances. The two new record-breaking bolts were recorded on instruments aboard the GOES-16 and GOES-17 satellites, which are operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Europe has a similar eye-in-the-sky, the Meteosat Third Generation Lightning Imager, and China has the FY-4 Lightning Mapping Imager. 

"Now that we have a robust record of these monster flashes, we can begin to understand how they occur and appreciate the disproportionate impact that they have," said Michael J. Peterson, an atmospheric scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who led the reporting of the new records, published Feb. 1 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

"There is still a lot that we do not know about these monsters," Peterson said in the statement.

Originally published on Live Science. 

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.