Minimum Cloud Size for Lightning
A few days ago, there was a cold unstable air mass that
moved through the Pacific Northwest. I was watching a nearby growing
cumulus cloud visually and on NWS radar. The storm produced a single
rumble of thunder before dissipating. So I was wondering, under
"perfect" conditions, how big (area, height, etc.) must a cumulus cloud
be in order to produce at least a single bolt of lightning?
There is no easy answer to your question. Lightning has been observed
when no clouds are present -- (admittedly this is a rare event) and even
during snow storms. Sometimes lightning strikes cloud to earth, but the
other direction is also occurs. Cloud to cloud lightning is possible, and
even cloud to ionosphere discharges are believed to occur. As common as
lightning is worldwide, it is a difficult phenomenon to study. It is only
fairly recently with the advent of satellite monitoring that a global
distribution of lightning events has been possible.
For some interesting reading I would suggest the book "The Lightning
Discharge" by Martin A. Uman, published by Dover Publications (2001) [ISBN:
A Google search on the term "lightning bolt out of the blue" also will
lead you to many interesting sites on the subject including a recent article
in Scientific American.
Lightning is a complex phenomena, and not totally understood by
meteorologists in every respect. It is caused by charge separation in
clouds. Factors affecting this charge are temperature updraft velocities,
moisture content of the air, and others. But, a rule of thumb used by
forecasters is that cloud tops must reach 20,000 feet for lightning
initiation in a thunderstorm cloud. In wintertime, these heights can be
lower, because the temperatures aloft are cooler, which affects moisture
particle size and other factors. Convective cloud tops in the winter may be
as low as 12,000 feet and produce lightning. These are pretty rare however.
Wendell Bechtold, meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO.
Generally, taller thunderstorms produce lightning because
a build up of charge in the cloud must occur. The charge build up
is created by the motion of hydrometers (rain, hail, etc.), which
is enhanced in taller thunderstorms. However, thunderstorms with
tops no greater than 35,000 feet can produce lightning because of
vigorous growth. This kind of thunderstorm is commonly embedded
in winter cold fronts.
David R. Cook
Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry Section
Environmental Research Division
Argonne National Laboratory
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Update: June 2012