World map of lightning strikes


See that dark purple spot of heavy activity in North America? That's more or less centered over where I grew up. God, I miss thunderstorms.

And, speaking of deities, what is up with this, anyway? How did Kansas and Missouri anger Thor so very badly?

In reality, this picture is somewhat distorted. It only shows lighting strikes for the last six months. Look at NASA's documentation of all lightning strikes since 1998, and it becomes clear that the American Midwest, while an active spot, isn't quite the epicenter of the Lord's Righteous Wrath that it first appears. Instead, it's just one of several global hot spots. The place with the most lightning is actually in central Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, "near the small village of Kifuka." NASA's Hugh Christian, project leader for the National Space Science and Technology Center's lightning team, explains:

And where does lightning strike most frequently? Central Africa. "There you get thunderstorms all year 'round," Christian says. "[It's a result of] weather patterns, air flow from the Atlantic Ocean, and enhancement by mountainous areas."

Image originally from the WeatherMatrix blog, via my friend Joe Jarvis. Although, it's worth noting that the WeatherMatrix blog makes some claims about lightning behavior—like, "it doesn't happen in the mountains"—that seem to be contradicted by the village of Kifuka's location .... in the mountains. Make of that what you will.


  1. Ha! That just proves that, if there is a god, he hates the midwest!

    That being said, during the 4.5 years I lived in Portland, Or, I missed the thunderstorms. I just moved back to the south and have been rocked to sleep by thunder shaking my house a couple of times now. It’s so comforting!

  2. having followed the link to the second data visualization, I notice that the midwest area shown on the first map is not mapped on the second. In fact, nothing north of about the mason-dixon line is depicted.

  3. I grew up in Minnesota. I miss the thunderstorms more than almost anything. (Also the winters. Yes, I liked the winters.)

  4. Great catch (and sense of humor) aerohydro. The movie made from it, “They Came From Beyond Space” takes the action to a field in England instead of Kansas and can be viewed on Hulu. If you’ve got 90 minutes to kill though, read the book because it’s waaaaay better than the movie.

  5. I just visited my family back in Indiana and experienced my first lightning and thunder since moving away 2 years ago. Also: the smell of late autumn among deciduous trees.

  6. This map is a neat illustration of the dangers of cherry picking data. In the parts of Southern Africa where it storms, it does so frequently, but only around Summer, ie in the 6 months they excluded.

    The other link to the NASA 12-year data shows that where I grew up is right up at the top end of the scale, where the main 6-month map shows almost nothing.

  7. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. As you can tell by the map, we hardly ever get lightning and get about as many lightning strikes as other places get lightning storms.

    Toward the end of the Cold War my wife and I had been in Lincoln, Nebraska for a few weeks without TV or radio. When it was time to leave to drove across Kansas to get to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a dark and stormy night. We had horizontal rain and couldn’t see more than 30 feet ahead of us. My wife is terrified of lightning and the only time we could see was during a distant lightning strike. We finally got to Dodge City to stop for gas, walked in and heard the Emergency Broadcast System tone. We froze in our tracks thinking that the Soviets had launched a nuclear strike. The announcer (who sounded like a high school student) said a big storm had come into the area and everyone should stay in their homes. Apparently the road we had driven down had been closed just after we had turned onto it and we slip through unnoticed.

  8. All lightning strikes since 1998? Maybe my memory’s a bit fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure I remember some thungerstorms here in the UK. I think there might have been a few in the rest of Europe, Canada and Russia too.

  9. In fact, the “mountain theory” seems to be quite right. If you check the map, in the Andes region in Argentina, and in the Himalayas region in northwest India there are black spots.

    It´s a surprise for me to see Uruguay in dark grey. :S

  10. Interesting maps. I’ve often wondered if other parts of the globe experience tornadoes as often as we in the midwest US do?

  11. I realize this map shows only the last 6 months, but what stuck out to me was that the middle east area is relatively free of this natural phenomenon. If a lightning strike occurs only a few times in an average lifetime, it makes sense that the religions developed in that area included references to their god(s) smiting from the heavens. How else to explain it, without modern science?

  12. It figures that our top Lightning Scientist is NASA’s Huge Christian. Other high officials in NASA’s Deity Research wing include the High Vulcanist (volcano research and sacrifice) and Great Neptunite (whirlpools and sea monster communication).

    On a different note… how much is the data skewed by reporting? Is the data gathered by human reports or by automated systems, and, if the latter, are these systems equally dispersed around the globe? So, for instance, is the dearth of lightning strikes in Siberia a real fact, or is it just that no one iss reporting the strikes where there are no people?

    1. “This new perspective on lightning is possible thanks to two satellite-based detectors: the Optical Transient Detector (OTD) and the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS)”

      1. The ODT was in operation from 1995 through March 2000, and it covered a range from 70 to -70 degrees latitude. It was a prototype sensor for the later LIS, and it only detected between 45% and 60% of lightning while it was running. You can see the summary of its detections here:

        The LIS was launched in 1997, and collected all the data shown in Maggie’s first link. It catches 90% of the lighting it observes, but you’ll notice it has a much more limited range, from 35 to -35 degrees latitude.

        So anything between those latitudes it probably getting a fair, unskewed picture of lightning strikes if you are talking about relying on NASA’s data. Now, that top image is NOT from satellite data, but it is from Vaisala, which uses a bunch of “strategically placed” ground-based sensors to generate the maps. They say they get 70% detection in most of the northern hemisphere and between 10% and 50% detection in the southern hemisphere. They claim that this gives the most complete coverage, and to be fair, if you are interested in latitudes above 35 degrees it probably is. But SamSam would be right that there is a good chance the data could be skewed by sensor placement for that particular dataset.

  13. Anger Thor?
    No no no. Here in Missouri we just think lightning is bitching awesome and ask for all we can get!

    Lightning means Thor approves.

  14. Since living in Philly, I have missed several things about Missouri: the awesome lightning storms (complete with hail and tornados), clean air that doesn’t make my skin break out, and some relief from the windy, dreary winter.

    I don’t think the deities hate Missouri; they want to impress its people with their awesome light show.

  15. I agree, Thor isn’t angry. Only Zeus and the Christian god throw angry lightning at people, Thor uses lightening to fight giants and trolls, metaphorically “chaos” and hearing Thunder meant that Thor was at it again. From Wikipedia:

    A Scandinavian folk belief that lightning frightens away trolls and ettins appears in numerous Scandinavian folktales, and may be a late reflection of Thor’s role in fighting such beings. In connection, the lack of trolls and ettins in modern Scandinavia is explained as a result of the “accuracy and efficiency of the lightning strokes”.

  16. Whaddup KCMO!

    Being a huge fan of Tesla and getting to witness lightening sometimes even during winter, keeps the imagination honed. More often than not, when there is interesting whether we are generally outside experiencing it. A recent out of town friend was here during the summer, and every time there were storms he videotaped them… interesting.

  17. Maybe its because the Mormons believe Missouri is the home of the Garden of Eden. Shoot, the RLDS has their headquarters there.

  18. Lightning => Rain => Irrigation => Crops => Food => Prosperity

    There appears to be a correlation between lightning with the world wealth

  19. If you google lightning frequency for the US, everyone from Wikipedia to NASA agrees that central Florida is # 1. Yeah, I’m a Florida chauvinist. Having spent the last 9 years in the Bahamas, though, I have to say Eleuthera isn’t too shabby.

  20. I Notice a nice high intensity peak over Guatemalan highlands which makes me recall rainy season thunderstorms in all their glory.

Comments are closed.