New Brunswick

Despite heat and humidity, New Brunswick has far fewer lightning strikes than normal

In this year of seemingly apocalyptic events, some things aren’t hitting the 2020 threshold. Lightning strikes in New Brunswick, for example, are way down this summer. 

Province saw less than half the usual number of strikes in July

In an average July, New Brunswick would see more than 21,000 lightning strikes, but 2020 saw fewer than 9,000. (Shutterstock/Denis Rozhnovsky)

In this year of seemingly apocalyptic events, some things aren't hitting the 2020 threshold.

Lightning strikes in New Brunswick, for example, are way down this summer. 

In an average July, the province would see more than 21,000 strikes, but July of 2020 saw fewer than 9,000. 

But, it's hard to say what that means, said Jim Prime, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada. 

"It's tricky to say because when we measure the amount of lightning ... we don't necessarily look at ... what caused the lightning in the first place."

Lightning often accompanies hot, humid weather, which New Brunswick has seen a lot of this summer. (Bernd Maerz/dpa via AP)

So while the drop is noteworthy, it may not be significant, said Prime. 

Similar hot, humid weather in another year may produce a normal, or higher-than-normal, number of cloud-to-ground strikes. 

It takes three things to produce lightning, explained Prime. 

Excessive heat — check. 

Moisture —  check. 

And a trigger —  and therein might lie the answer, said Prime. 

Lightning strike on Miramichi River

1 year ago
Duration 0:22
Amateur photographer Matt Ellsworth of Nelson-Miramichi was watching a storm roll in across from Beaubears Island when he captured this moment. 0:22

We certainly had a lot of heat and humidity in July, he said. The trigger, however, remains a mystery since scientists don't follow each lightning event that carefully.

Cold fronts can act as triggers, and so could a trough or a low pressure system, he said. 

"So we might be able to say, 'Maybe we didn't have that trigger that we're normally looking for to generate the thunderstorms.'"

But even if there were more cold fronts or troughs, it still might not have resulted in more lightning strikes, said Prime. 

So while remarkable, the drop will likely remain a mystery, he said.

Lightning strikes the CN Tower during a summer storm. ((Submitted by Stephen Pereira))

What data is available is collected by the Canadian Lightning Detection Network, which was established in 1998. 

Canada averages more than two million lightning strikes each year. On average, 10 people are killed, roughly 150 people are injured, and about 4,000 forest fires are started each year by lightning.  

Environment Canada has a lot more information on the science behind lightning, including this slow-motion video of a lightning strike, but the simple explanation is that positive and negative charges have to separate within a cloud in order to create lightning. 

Thunder is "the sound of the shock wave that lightning produces as it heats up the air to 30,000 C in less than one second. This is five times the temperature on the surface of the sun," according to Environment Canada's website. 

While Windsor, Ont. is Canada's lightning capital, the CN Tower in Toronto is the object that gets struck by lightning the most in Canada.

According to statistics collected by the Canadian Lightning Detection Network, New Brunswick's lightning capital is Edmundston, which recorded more than 22,000 strikes since 1998.

Edmundston is New Brunswick's lightning hotspot according to a study of lightning statistics. (Environment Canada)

Not just in thunderstorms

Lightning can also occur in dust storms, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions. 

Environment Canada's website says, "Particles such as sand, smoke and ash, which exist in these environments, can become electrically charged and create atmospheric conditions similar to that of a thunderstorm."

New Brunswick lighting events

Environment Canada has compiled a list of interesting lightning occurrences dating back to 1831. Here are a few of them:

March 24, 1858

Lightning tore a 61 m gap in the Reversing Falls Bridge in Saint John, but did not set it on fire. Shortly after, a stagecoach from Fredericton filled with passengers started across it. Miraculously, the horses stopped part way and a lightning flash allowed the driver and passengers to see the huge gap.

April 15, 1834

According to the Gleaner newspaper, the Isabella was struck by lightning while at berth in the Saint John harbour. The bolt carried away the fore and main topmast and shattered the starboard side of the deck, before exiting under the fore chains. Lightning bolts struck twice, the first time making a sailor insensible.

May 30, 1831

Lightning struck the chimney of Henry Lord's house in Saint John, splitting it from top to bottom. It tore off the mantelpiece, and completely melted the brass shovel and tongs that stood near the fireplace. A man in an adjoining room was temporarily deprived of speech, but he soon recovered. Out in the barn, the cow Mrs. Lord was milking was knocked down by lightning, but was not injured.

June 29, 2005

Tourists often visited the spectacular Ste-Anne Roman Catholic Church, the heart and soul of the 300-strong Acadian community of Ste-Anne-de-Kent. Sadly, the blessed church is now in ruins after a fire triggered by a lightning strike. Residents formed a human chain to pull religious artifacts from the burning church, but flames devoured more than 60 frescoes and a rare chandelier.

July 9, 1831

Lightning descended a house chimney in Cumberland Arms, and then exited, cleanly separating window glass from its sashes. The explosion shattered dishes and broke a decanter containing spirits. The editor of the Miramichi Gleaner wrote: "The circumstance of the lightning having smashed the rum bottle, without damaging anything else in the room, was an argument in favour of Temperance Societies."

July 12, 1864

Lightning struck a house near Fredericton and destroyed an occupied cradle. The baby wasn't injured, nor was anyone in the house, but a fine horse died. Lightning also struck a schoolhouse, descending among the children and knocking one of them from a seat. The lightning was so vivid and the flashes so incessant, the heavens appeared to be on fire.

July 18, 1856

Lightning struck a house in Chatham, killing two young girls. The father of one of the girls threw a barrel of flour on the fire from an upstairs window. He then took his injured wife outside, where she told him that both girls were dead. He went back in and saw them standing at a table, holding dishes. As soon as he touched them, they both fell dead.

July 20, 2003

During a soccer tournament in Fredericton, lightning struck and instantly killed a 14-year-old female player from Maine. The blast threw the teenager more than a metre into the air; she came down in a rumple. More than 20 others were injured or dazed and taken to hospital. Eyewitnesses said the thunder and lightning occurred at the same time.

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