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Data disprove Tampa's lightning capital claim

Lightning strikes are common in the bay area, not just in Tampa, so the city’s claim that it’s the lightning capital of the nation is more a branding mechanism than a fact, an expert says.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2009)

Lightning strikes are common in the bay area, not just in Tampa, so the city’s claim that it’s the lightning capital of the nation is more a branding mechanism than a fact, an expert says.

TAMPA — Lightning is as much a part of the Tampa canvas as manatees and strip clubs. It tears through sky on an average of 100 days a year. It singes and burns, injures and even kills.

And it leads us to a bold assertion:

"Tampa is known, as all of you know, as the lightning capital of the country," Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward told a crowd gathered to kick off Lightning Safety Awareness Week in June.

Lightning capital of the country: It's an association ingrained into the soul of the city. It's even embedded into official city documents, with the mayor's proclamation of Lightning Safety Awareness Week declaring the Tampa Bay area as the "Lightning Capital of North America."

But, the claim of national storm superiority might be a little overzealous, said Richard Kithil, president of the National Lightning Safety Institute. Yes, the state leads the nation in lightning-related fatalities. But calling Tampa the lightning capital of the United States, or North America, or, as some have said, the world, just isn't true.

"Oh, we're back to this business of the lightning capital?" Kithil said with a sigh when he answered a reporter's call. It's an assertion he has heard before. And not just from Tampa.

Houston is a hot spot, he said. So is the arc from North Carolina to New Orleans. New England. The Rocky Mountains. The amount of lightning activity a region or city sees changes every year, depending on a whole host of factors.

And even within the same year, it's hard to award one city the lightning crown. Mainly, because there is no single, systemic way to quantify the statement.

"One defining term would be the most cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, but it's likely that location would change every year," Kithil said. "Another is thunderstorm days, or how many days a year were thunderstorms heard. That's very sloppy."

And not all strikes are created equal, Kithil said. Some pack more of a punch, or multiple punches known as strokes — the parts of the bolt that fragment off, documented in iconic photos. A single strike could carry as many as 15 strokes, adding one more layer to the comparison process.

Strikes. Strokes. Storm days. Deaths. Intensity. With all of these variables, is it even possible to label a city as the lightning capital of the country? Call the National Weather Service's Tampa Bay office and the answer is immediate: "Sure," meteorologist Anthony Reynes said. "That's us."

But ask for clarification and things get complicated. National data aren't maintained on cloud-to-ground strikes, Reynes said.

"We do have the number of days of thunderstorms a year, and that alone puts Tampa on the top," he said.

But more storms don't necessarily equal more lightning, right?

"You can have a lot of thunderstorms covering a larger area putting out very little lightning or a small storm putting out thousands of strikes in a matter of minutes."

So, another city could have more incidents of lightning than Tampa?

"The more days you have with thunderstorm activity, the higher the chances you have for somebody getting struck," he said. "Other areas might have more strikes, but Tampa has more potential."

More potential. But not necessarily more results. That's a shaky foundation for a national title.

The location of the maximum ground flash density moves from year to year, said Martin Uman, a University of Florida electrical engineering professor and one of the country's most respected authorities on lightning.

"One year, I recall that it was in the Midwest, one in north Tampa," Uman wrote in an email. "Usually, it is somewhere, in some square kilometer, between Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers."

Uman agreed with Kithil that it's not possible to label one city the lightning capital of the United States. But if someone wanted to try, the title would usually land in some area of Southwest Florida, he said.

Meaning Tampa might not be the lightning capital of Florida, let alone the country. Orlando and Miami have made the same claim. And NASA's Kennedy Space Center sees its fair share of electric activity.

Part of the problem with picking a single place is that there isn't a go-to place for national figures, Kithil said. The data that do exist are usually by county or state, not city. The leader jumps around, depending on the year. One recent winner? Our neighbors to the north in Pasco County.

The city's obsession with its reputation has permeated the culture for decades. The term can be found in local newspaper articles in the late 1960s. Regardless of when and how it started, or whether it's factual, it is a branding mechanism, Kithil said.

"It's a sexy icon," Kithil said. "It sounds kind of snappy. The media and the chamber of commerce and other people like to say things like that to distinguish their city from other cities that have less fireworks than they do."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.

Data disprove Tampa's lightning capital claim 06/30/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 11:12pm]
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