February 28, 2021

Rare Upside Down Lightning Viewed over Puget Sound

On Friday evening, camera 3 of Greg Johnson's wonderful Skunk Bay weather site captured an extraordinary lightning picture (see below), with the camera looking east over Whidbey Island from its location over the northern Kitsap Peninsula (see map below).  

What is so amazing and unusual about this lightning?  

 Look how it starts at a single point at the surface and then fans out into multiple lightning channels as it rises.   It looks like something out of the movie Ghostbusters or some science fiction flick!

Most lightning does not look that this.... in fact, 99% of lightning hitting the ground does just the opposite, dividing into multiple branches as it approaches the ground from above (see samples).

The lightning that hit Whidbey Island around 8 PM on Friday represents "upward-moving" or "ground to cloud" lightning.   Such lighting not only has a strong thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud above, but generally starts on some kind of high tower, itself often on a hill or higher terrain. 

In the picture above (reproduced below) and with the help of Greg Johnson, we determined that the right-most upward lightning bolt came over off a big tower located at the red "plus" symbols.  If you look closely, you can see a red light at the top of the tower.  We are still working on determining the second tower location to its left.

The radar image at this time (again, around 8 PM Friday) was impressive, with a very intense band of precipitation (red colors) extending across southern Whidbey Island. 

Inside that strong band, there was intense charge separation in the clouds that led to an increasing potential difference between the surface and the clouds.  The surface towers acting as foci for the breakdown of atmospheric resistance to this potential difference, leading to the upward lightning stroke.  Upward-moving lightning is rare and having a flowering upward spread like the above is even rarer. 

But does happen, with another example being an example of lightning spreading  upwards from a transmitter tower in Slovakia:

Next time you need to charge your electric car...you will know where to go.....

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  1. Those 1.21 gigawatts are best reserved for your DeLorean, doctor!

  2. We saw this happen in Idaho Falls last summer with a storm from our deck... My son has great picture of it. I can forward it on to you Cliff, if you are interested. Can't post it in the comments..


    1. You can upload to imgur or somewhere like that, then paste the link in comments. Sounds interesting, I would like to see it.

  3. Friday night on Whidbey Island we had an extraordinary hail storm, maybe the most significant I've seen in 8 years on South Whidbey. Our location is about halfway between Langley and Bayview and not far from the red X you had on your diagram. The hail stuck around for a full day here.

  4. We also think that there is a power pole out in the lava bed where this came from..... Cool science lesson.

  5. Greg at Skunk Bay seems to be in an ideal place to observe lightning in Western Washington.
    At any rate he seems to see it a lot more than I do.

    Sebodog: I hope so, it is about time.

    1. yup, haha, also today wasn't bad, upper 50s and sunny

  6. I live at the northern tip of Lake Washington, and I felt my whole building shake after the bolt occurred! I've been within 50 yards of lightning strikes before and cannot say I remember the ground shaking that much. Is it common for lightning bolts to cause mini quakes, and do we know what the magnitude from this was?

  7. I live just south of Langley, and we saw/heard those lighting bolts. Quite a show! We also had a large accumulation of pea-sized hail. As for the second tower mystery, there's only one radio tower in that area that I'm aware of, the big one you mentioned. The other location is made up of scattered, rural houses and forest along the side of a ridge. So maybe a big tree, a high metal roof or somebody's HAM radio setup?

  8. Arn't these "ground-to-air" bolts also associated with much much louder/longer thunder. Is that because the power is much greater than cloud-to-ground?

  9. I'd love to see ball lightning someday. Mom saw it as a child. It is still not well understood- at one time scientists thought it wasn't real- just fanciful imagination.

    But to have a good chance to see it, one ought to move somewhere where lightning is common.

    Ben Franklin set up two bells a few inches apart, one grounded and one connected to his lightning rod on the roof. Then he hung a pendulum with a metal bob in such a way as to hang between the bells. During thunderstorms, the bob would be attracted alternately to one bell and then the other, picking up a charge and then loosing it to ground- hence causing the bells to ring. It did not require an actual lightning strike- just a healthy charge gradient. Sounds like fun- I would set one up if only we had thunderstorms frequently. But don't touch the bells when they ring!

  10. Was that band of squalls caused by a CZ below Vancouver Island? I watched the radar and it looked like a thin band marching SE down the island where winds from the Strait and the San Juans would meet.

  11. When you have particles in the sky from spraying on all fronts day in and day out is it any real surprise 'lightning' will behave weird? Lightning has been unusual the last few years all over the globe sometimes in areas that are not prone to lightning at all!


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