Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Christopher C. Burt , 9:13 PM GMT on June 21, 2012
Thunderstorms: The ‘Stormiest’ Places in The U.S.A. and the World
June normally marks the beginning of the monsoon season in America’s Southwest and some areas may expect to see almost daily afternoon thunderstorms develop between now and September. These storms are the principle contributor to wild fires during the summer months in the western U.S. Here’s a summary of some of the ‘stormiest’ places in the country and world.
A severe thunderstorm bears down on a truck stop in central Nebraska. The storm produced a tornado shortly prior to the photo being taken. Photo by Mike Hollingshead. For amazing storm photos visit Mike’s web site.
U.S.A. Stormiest Places
There are two ways to determine which places in the U.S. experience the greatest number of thunderstorms. One is to count ‘thunderstorm’ days: the number days each year that thunder is heard at a particular weather station and 2) count the actual number of individual thunderstorms that occur at a weather site. There is a difference since some places, especially in Florida receive more than one thunderstorm in a single day. Cape Canaveral, for instance, once counted six separate thunderstorms in one day. For the sake of comparing one location to another I am going to use the number of ‘thunderstorm days’ criteria.
This map shows the actual number of thunderstorms reported each year on average, not thunderstorm days. Map from ‘Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book’ source of data from NCDC.
Here is an alternative view of U.S. thunderstorm activity that illustrates the number of lightning strokes recorded per square mile. Map from Visalia Lightning Detection Network.
This map shows, in a broad-brush fashion, the month of maximum thunderstorm activity by region. Map from ‘Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book’ source of data from NCDC.
It is probably not surprising that portions of Florida record the greatest number of thunderstorm days in the U.S. with as many as 100-130 storm-days a year in an area inland of the Gulf Coast stretching from the Everglades north to the city of Lakeland (about 30 miles inland from Tampa) being the area of greatest activity. Lakeland, Florida averages 100 thunderstorm days a year, the most of any significant city in the entire country. Tampa averages 78 thunderstorm days and Fort Meyers 92 (the 2nd highest number for any city after Lakeland). Below are a couple of tables listing the city’s with the most number of annual thunderstorm days and a list of some other major U.S. cities and their number of such days.
The other region that can contend (almost) with Florida and the immediate Gulf Coast of Alabama and Mississippi is a small area in northern New Mexico in the Sangre de Christo Mountains centered around the small town of Cimarron (elevation 6,400’) where thunderstorms occur about 110 days of the year. Not surprisingly, at one time a government lightning-research facility was located here. In July the area averages 30 thunderstorm-days, in other words virtually every day of the month.
In west-central New Mexico near the town of Quemado (an area that experiences frequent summer thunderstorms) the artist Walter de Maria installed a field of several acres of lightning rods as part of a conceptual art project in the 1970s. Photo from Walter de Mario web site.
Another small region in the Southwest that also averages a thunderstorm every day of the month during July are the Huachuca Mountains in extreme southeast Arizona (in fact July averages 32 thunderstorms, more than one a day!). These mountains record about 80-90 thunderstorm days a year. Tucson, which is located just 50-60 miles north of here is known as one of the best places in the world to view thunderstorms since it averages about 20 July t-storm days and has nearby mountains (Mt. Lemmon in particular) that offer superb viewing platforms. Tucson averages about 40 thunderstorm days a year.
Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona is a favorite haunt for storm photographers during the summer monsoon storm season. Photo y A.T. Willett.
An area along the central front range of Colorado averages as many as 80 thunderstorm days a year as evidenced by the average of 51 storm days a year in Colorado Springs (the highest figure for any major city in the West). Colorado, in fact, endured more lightning fatalities (39) than any state in the union out side of Florida (126) and Texas (52) for the period of record 1990-2003 (the latest POR for such data I can find). However, when the fatalities are weighted for population density, Wyoming is by far the deadliest with a death rate of 2.02 per million people compared to Florida’s 0.56 rate (which ranks 4th in this regard). After Wyoming, the next deadliest (deaths per million) states are Utah (0.70) and Colorado (0.65). Of course, this is a bit of a meaningless statistic since these western states host millions of tourists every summer. Wyoming, for instance, may be the least populated state in the union (about 400,000 residents) but it sees about 2 million summer visitors to its national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons during the summer months. Many of these are alpine climbers and backcountry trekkers. So, of course, they are subject to the storms that occur during the peak climbing and hiking months of the summer.
The maps above show the total number of deaths by lightning by state (top) and deaths ranked by number per million of residents (bottom). The period of record for both maps is 1990-2003. Source from Storm Data, NOAA.
Moments after this photograph was taken these two boys were struck by lightning and seriously injured. A nearby hiker was killed. They were posing for the shot on top of Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra of California during the summer of 1975. Photo by Mary McQuilken (sister of the two boys).
Stormiest Places in the World
The area that experiences the most thunderstorm days in the world is northern Lake Victoria in Uganda, Africa. In Kampala thunder is heard on average 242 days of the year, although the actual storms usually hover over the lake and do not strike the city itself. The reason for the incredible number of storms here is best summed up by F.E. Lumb in the British journal ‘Weather’:
Land-breeze convergence over the lake during the night releases latent instability of the moist lower layers of air over the lake which participate in the land breeze circulation, resulting in the development of cumulonimbus clouds and thunderstorms over the lake most nights of the year.
This is also likely the reason that a phenomenal number of thunderstorms develop over northern Maracaibo Lake in Venezuela, resulting in the famous ‘Catatumbo Lightning’ phenomena (named after the river that flows into the lake and where the storms are most frequent). It is estimated that storms develop on about 140-160 nights a year here providing extraordinary lightning displays.
A map of worldwide annual thunderstorm days. The table under the map lists the single most thunderstorm-prone towns and cities on earth. Map from ‘Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book’ and based on data from ‘The World Survey of Climatology’, Elsevier Publishing Comp.
At one time Bogor, Indonesia (a very large city near a volcano on Java Island) was reputed to have 322 thunderstorm days per year. This is an apocryphal number although storms do develop over the volcano just south of the city on an almost daily basis. Further inland the city of Bandung records an average of 218 thunderstorm days annually, the most for any site in Asia. The Congo River Basin of Africa averages as many as 228 thunderstorms days as is the case in the city of Bunia, Republic of Congo. In South America, the Amazon Basin reports up to 206 thunderstorm days at the town of Carauri. Australia’s stormiest location is Port George IV in Western Australia on the shores of the Timor Sea where 100 thunderstorm days a year are the norm.
And as a parting shot on the subject of thunderstorms…
A marvelous high definition photo pastiche (composed of 11 separate images) of a cumulonimbus cloud that produced golf ball-size hail three miles from this vantage point (undetermined location). Photo by Pat Kavanaugh.
Christopher C. Burt
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