Ask Ellen: Why last night’s storm was so mesmerizing

Ask Ellen

It was hard to miss that stellar light show with the line of storms that dropped through West Michigan Thursday night. Lightning flashes seemed to be on rapid fire, with hardly a second going by without a flash! There are several reasons why this storm was especially breathtaking. Here are five reasons why the storm was so impressively beautiful. 

A photo of storm clouds over Crockery Lake on Aug. 29, 2019. (Courtesy of Carol VanLaan)
A photo of storm clouds over Crockery Lake on Aug. 29, 2019. (Courtesy of Carol VanLaan)


The line of storms dropping from the north down to the south on Thursday had very little surrounding cloud cover. That means we were able to enjoy the pure beauty of the cloud structure both ahead of the storm, and after it passed. Often times, there is so much moisture around a storm that clouds build in around the main updraft. This muddies the view for us on the ground and makes it harder to see the beautiful convective plumes of the biggest storm clouds. The drier air ahead and behind the line also meant we had a better view to see some of those smaller lightning strikes at the top of the anvil clouds! Often times, those are hidden from view. 


Meteorologists currently theorize that the whole reason lightning exists is due to hail stones bumping up against each other inside the updraft of a cumulus cloud and creating a static electricity energy charge as they do. Yesterday, the freezing line at the top of the storms was sufficient enough to produce a lot of small hail. Those hail stones kept our storms firing off strikes for hours.

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Weaker thunderstorms can fizzle themselves out in a matter of 25 minutes or so. Strong to severe storms usually end up lasting longer and shoot up higher into the sky. The storms on Thursday were able to maintain their strong to severe status for the entire trip across Michigan as they dropped from north of Big Rapids eventually south to Three Rivers. This means the entire population of West Michigan was able to see the storms full-strength lightning show. It also means the cloud tops for the storms were higher, and could be seen from farther away. This allowed people to watch the storm for much longer than if the storm had been weaker. 


Although the individual storms within the line were moving fast, at about 45 mph, the line itself was moving slowly. This means we could watch the light show for more than an hour as it slowly dropped south out of sight. If the line would have moved fast, we would have only have been able to enjoy the stellar illumination for a few minutes or so. 


Many viewers have reported to us that they heard very little thunder, even though they saw a ton of lightning! This has to do with how sound and light travel differently over distance! Thunder can only be heard from about 10-15 miles away. That means if you are watching lightning from a storm that is 20 miles away from you, you physically won’t be able to hear the thunder it makes! Because the storm was so visible (because it was a narrow line, the cloud tops were high, it was strong/severe, and slow to move south) people got to enjoy more than an hour of a lightning show, and likely only heard low, steady rumbles of thunder for only a little while. 

Lightning is so incredibly hot, that any time there is a strike it must produce thunder. The strikes at the tops of the clouds likely had some pretty loud booms! You were just not close enough to hear them the entire time. 

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