White Lightning Identified in Kansas Snowstorm

Phenomenon known as Thundersnow is quite unusual.

White lightning is rare in Kansas, yet showed up in several places this fall.

It wasn't the product of a jury-rigged still, complete with copper tubing and wooded hiding place.

Instead, this white lightning emerged during a brief snow – followed closely by rumbles of thunder, says Mary Knapp, State of Kansas climatologist, based with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

"A trained observer would probably say the mix of weather factors was a thunderstorm in which the precipitation fell as snow. Through the years, however, most people have come to know this kind of odd combination as either thundersnow or white lightning – white snow, plus lightning," she says.

Although a thundersnow storm is unusual, it isn't necessarily a once-in-a-life time event.

"For thundersnow to develop, "she explains, "you just need relatively strong instability in the atmosphere and abundant above-surface moisture – as you'd get with moisture above a warm front."

Knapp says weather records suggest this undistilled white lightning is most likely to develop in the central United States, on the U.S. and Canadian east coasts, and in northern Canada. It can even occur during lake-effect snowstorms, downstream from the Great Salt Lake and the Great Lakes.

"Scientists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory have found evidence that the snowfall tends be heavier when thunder and lighting also are reported for the same place and time," she adds.

Knapp was the first to identify another odd Kansas winter phenomenon in 2000. Called snow rollers, the large and seemingly self-rolled snow and ice balls were best known then at the North and South Poles. Now, however, Kansas' brief examples are on permanent photo display in the Kansas Weather Data Library's Web site at www.oznet.ksu.edu/wedl/snowroller1.asp.

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