Dominique's Q&A: Where's the Lightning in a Hurricane?

Houston, TX – After the 10pm newscast last night, Dominique asked me why hurricanes don't have lightning? Some do, as we'll get to, but the simple answer is the structure: hurricane winds are on a horizontal trajectory, spiraling inward toward the center and for thunderstorms (and lightning) to develop you need vertical structure. What that means is fast rising air UPWARD into the sky where ice and rain collide in the cold air to create lightning as opposed to a hurricane's horizontal winds.

You can certainly get that rising air and, in fact, when you have those thunderstorms developing in a hurricane, like Dorian, it's often a sign of rapid intensification:

That's Dorian above developing east of the Bahamas and I've highlighted in yellow the lightning that was developing at the time. NOAA has also studied the 2005 hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Emily which all became CAT 5 storms in the Gulf and Caribbean and displayed lightning:

That's Hurricane Emily above and you can see the + and - signs indicating lightning. Positive strokes, by the way, form at the top of storms and travel a long way down so tend to be meaner strikes of lightning!

Here are two great links to more on this phenomenon. From the Washington Post, go here.

And from NOAA go here.

Thanks for the en-"lightning" question, Dominique! See you on TV!


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About the Author:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.