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Arctic thunderstorms: what caused this rare occurrence last night

When you hear the word “thunderstorm”, you may think of the midwest or southeastern portions of the United States. When you hear “lightning storm”, your mind may wander to the southwestern U.S. where dry thunderstorms or lightning storms often occur. One place that you might never think of being impacted by lightning is the Arctic Circle, but it was just last night that a rare lightning storm occurred in the far northernmost part of the world.  

The Stormtrack Weather Team spoke with Rick Thoman, Alaska Climate Specialist, from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks about what conditions caused this lightning to form. “The oceans are either still mostly still ice covered or just very cold water. So these are thunderstorms that don’t form the way that a typical Missouri thunderstorm would form with the sun heating the ground and then the air rising...this is entirely different because that air right at the surface is, of course, very cold.”

Instead, these thunderstorms require warm, moist air to come off the coast of Siberia across the ocean into Alaska. This warm air, like in last night’s case, then collides with colder air over Alaska creating thunderstorms. Because that warm, moist air is not abundant in the upper latitudes, thunderstorms that far north are rare. 

“It happens enough that over the last thirty odd years I’ve been able to form some expectations of this over the Chukchi Sea. What we saw yesterday with the eastward propagation of thunderstorms over the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. That is much more unusual. I can only ever recall one or two times in the last few decades in that part of the arctic.”

While populations are very sparse in the Arctic Circle compared to the lower 48 states, it definitely was a night to remember for those who experienced this phenomenon. If anything, there may have been some penguins or polar bears who were thrown for a loop.

Insider Blog / Video / Weather / Weather Video
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Maddie Est

Maddie Est appears on ABC 17’s weekend evening broadcasts. She grew up in St. Louis, and her passion for weather originated from a young age thanks to all the different weather that St. Louis receives. She is currently studying Atmospheric Science at the University of Missouri.

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