Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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Lightning Season in West Virginia

January 24, 2002

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The Lord can do anything, including bringing summer-like thunderstorms to West Virginia in the middle of January.

Just four days after receiving 7 inches of snow, most of the state was greeted with a bizzare turn of the weather with an all-night series of thunderstorms on Wednesday night. Snow was still covering the ground in many places when a storm system, fueled by unseasonably warm temperatures (caused by northward transport of air from the Gulf of Mexico by a strong and correctly positioned jet stream) moved across the state in the overnight and early morning hours. The storms produced fairly frequent cloud-to-ground and intracloud lightning flashes, unheard of for the middle of winter in Appalachia.

This night, I was working late at the office and consequently had access to the neccessary weather data. At midnight, doppler radar showed the north end of a line of storms in eastern Kentucky, moving slowly east-northeast. Some of the best cells in the line seemed to be on a course for the Mason County area, so at 12:30 AM I headed west on US 35. There were several active cells visible by the time I reached Winfield. Flash rates were fairly decent, about one every minute or so. I knew I'd need to be facing south to take photos, so I crossed the river and moved west on Rt. 25.

At right: WV lightning strike data at 1:30 AM. White squares show ground strikes occuring at that time, colored squares indicate earlier discharges.

I finally reached the first cell at about 1:00 AM in Buffalo, WV, and at that point could see more active cells to the west. I kept driving until I reached a point about 5 miles inside of Mason County, when a cell just to my south started firing off bright cloud-to-ground strikes. Despite the relatively heavy rain, I immediately pulled off the road and set up the camera and its crude umbrella shelter and began shooting.

At left: Doppler radar image at 1:30 AM. This line was moving east-northeast (parallel to itself), meaning all the cells in the line were 'training' over the same locations over a two hour period.

Cell after cell passed overhead, none extremely active, but all good enough to keep me standing out in the cold rain for the next 2 hours. After all was said and done, the only catch was a bright cloud-to-ground channel about 3 miles away, mostly hidden behind a hill and low stratus clouds.

Had I got a shot like this during the summer, I wouldn't have thought twice before throwing it in the trash, much less scanning it and putting it online. But due to the extreme rarity of January lightning in West Virginia, I decided to keep it and include it here for the sake of illustration.

At right: Cloud-to-ground lightning strike behind the clouds about 3 miles away near Leon, West Virginia on January 24, 2002.

Later on at 3:30 AM, radar showed that a second line of cells with a good core of lightning activity was approaching from the west. After some deliberation, at 4:30 AM I headed west on I-64 to try and meet the line near Huntington, but didn't make it in time before the flashes fizzled. I turned around at Kenova just as the front edge of the rain swept over, and headed back home. I managed to get out ahead of the line, and consequently out of the rain, at Milton - the dry pavement making the long drive home a little easier to bear.

The fast-dying line moved over Charleston at 6:00 AM, with only one flash of intracloud lightning and subsequent roll of thunder to announce its passage.

What a night. It was the first time in 9 years that I've seen bright, loud lightning strikes alongside big piles of snow on the ground.

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