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Oklahoma passes Florida as the lightning capital of the U.S., new report says

Central Florida still has the most strikes per kilometer, however. A lack of lightning in South Florida and the Panhandle bring Florida’s average down.
Several cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can be seen in the distance as a storm moves out toward the Gulf of Mexico Friday, July 19, 2019 over Boca Ciega Bay. According to AccuWeather, Florida averages 3,500 cloud to ground lightning flashes per day and 1.2 million flashes per year. More people get struck and killed by lightning in Florida than any other state.   SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Several cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can be seen in the distance as a storm moves out toward the Gulf of Mexico Friday, July 19, 2019 over Boca Ciega Bay. According to AccuWeather, Florida averages 3,500 cloud to ground lightning flashes per day and 1.2 million flashes per year. More people get struck and killed by lightning in Florida than any other state. SCOTT KEELER | Times [ SCOTT KEELER | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 23

Florida always had a reputation for having the most lightning strikes — at least until now.

Oklahoma has overtaken the Sunshine State with slightly more lightning bolts per square kilometer over the last five years, according to Vaisala, a Finnish environmental monitoring company.

The margin between the states was slim. Florida’s 82.8 strikes per kilometer over the last five years barely edged Oklahoma’s 83.4 flashes.

Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist with Vaisala, told the Washington Post that his company uses the National Lightning Detection Network to gather its data. The network is able to detect about 95 percent of cloud-to-ground lightning flashes and 50 and 60 percent of in-cloud discharges.

With both states so close, even the slightest errors in data could swing the crown, according to Spectrum Bay News 9 Meteorologist Nick Merianos.

“You can’t ignore that there is a margin of error for each value,” Merianos said. “Accounting for the margin of error, Florida could technically squeeze out Oklahoma as the lightning capital.”

There’s no question that Florida and Oklahoma experience the most lightning flashes each year. Third place Louisiana averaged 71.9 flashes per square kilometer over the five-year span. The United States as a whole averaged just 18 flashes for each kilometer.

While the state no longer be king, Central Florida is still home to most lightning-prone counties in the country, according to Vaisala’s report. Seminole and Orange counties — which make up part of metro Orlando — both led the nation with 159 strikes per kilometer from 2015 to 2020.

A map showing where Florida experiences the most lightning strikes annually per county.
A map showing where Florida experiences the most lightning strikes annually per county. [ Vaisala ]

Lightning flashes are well above national averages in Tampa Bay as well.

Polk County averaged 138 strikes per kilometer over the last five years, Hernando had 124 and Pasco had 109. Manatee produced the next most strikes with 107 per kilometer, while Hillsborough County had 105.

The outlier for our region was Pinellas County, which produced just 43 strikes per square kilometer. The county, along with South Florida and the Panhandle, had the lowest strikes.

The reason behind the lack of strikes is linked to sea breezes that push storms across Pinellas quickly, said Richard Rude of the National Weather Service’s Ruskin Office.

“By the time lightning really gets going, the sea breeze has pushed the storm beyond Pinellas and inland,” Rude said. “It really comes to all of Pinellas County being close to the coast.”

Despite being overtaken by Oklahoma for the number of strikes, Florida remains the capital for a more sinister statistic — lighting deaths per year.

Lightning kills about 27 people each year in the United States and injuries more than 240, according to Florida State University. Florida averages 7 fatalities per year due to lightning.

Only three Floridians were killed by lightning in 2020, but it was still enough to tie Texas for the most deaths in the nation. Oklahoma, by comparison, recorded no deaths last year.