Data making a difference: Tracking lightning around the world in Tucson

World's lightning tracked in Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s one sound of summer that we can expect this Monsoon Season.

The roar of thunder, followed by a show that lights up the Southern Arizona sky.

The size and strength of those lightning flashes are tracked at Vaisala, a global company with an office in Tucson.

“We really do know where and when it’s happening and have an idea of how long it’s going to be when it arrives and how long it’s going to last," said Ron Holle.

The meteorologist has been working with Vaisala for 19 years, tracking tens of thousands of lightning flashes across the country and around the world.

Holle showed KOLD News 13 flashes, in real time Wednesday, collected through the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network. That network was created at the University of Arizona’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences about 35 years ago. According to Vaisala:

“The U.S. National Lightning Detection Network® (NLDN) is the most scientifically accurate and reliable lightning information system, monitoring total lightning activity across the continental United States, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has been proven to deliver unrivaled performance with excellent location accuracy and detection efficiency, and is the only U.S. network capable of both detecting cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning while, at the same time, correctly differentiating between the two.”

The NLDN detects cloud-to-ground flashes, which could be lightning touching down to a spot in the desert, connecting with a home or hitting a tree. It can also track in-cloud flashes.

“There are companies that just take the lightning data and do specific warnings for specific situations," said Holle.

Holle said the data collected goes to thousands of independent users or agencies, like the National Weather Service, NASA, the military, power companies and insurance agencies.

“That knowledge is used to cancel football games, to suspend sporting events to suspending airport operations," said Holle. “There is the inconvenience of stopping things when lighting doesn’t cause a problem, but I think the statistics are telling us it’s making a difference.”

DATA: Cloud-to-ground flashes detected by Vaisala’s National Lightning Detection Network


  • 2018: 574,035
  • 2009 - 2018: 539,689 average per year
  • Range: 402,241 to 704,439
  • Fatalities: 14 in the last 10 years, 4th largest in the U.S.

Pima County:

  • 2018: 55,999
  • 2009-2018: 55,530
  • Range: 37,823 - 75,612

Holle said the data collected has played a role in reducing the number of deaths and injuries linked to lightning flashes.

“There’s no question that is part of the reason we have a lot less deaths and injuries in the United States than we used to," said Holle.

So far in 2019, the NLDN has detected 13,433 flashes in the Tucson Metro. But, this is only the beginning.

A unique aspect in Arizona, Holle said, is that most of the lightning is condensed to a short period of time. More than 75-percent of lightning flashes are detected in Arizona in just two months: July and August.

So, as we move further into the monsoon season, something to keep in mind is the strength of a storm isn’t always measured by rain.

“The sense is that you’re not under a big threat. Pay attention to the lightning. Even if it’s not raining and you can hear thunder, you are in danger,” Holle said.

Safety Tips

  • If you are caught outside during a storm, find shelter in a nearby building or car. Keep windows closed.
  • If no safe shelter is available, squat low to the ground, making yourself as small a target as possible
  • Stay away from trees, poles, or metal objects
  • Stay away from lakes and rivers.
  • Use the 30/30 rule for your own personal safety if a thunderstorm comes up while you are outdoors.
  • The best shelter is a house or substantial building. If you cannot reach a building, a metal-topped car is the next best choice as long as the windows are closed and you are not in contact with the metal frame of the car in any way.
  • Trees must be avoided in thunderstorms. Picnic shelters, covered bus stops, dugouts or partially covered bleachers do not provide protection from lightning strikes.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.