Scientists have confirmed the existence of ‘superbolts’ that can be up to 1,000 times brighter than the average lightning strike, producing more power than all solar panels and wind turbines in the US combined.

In two separatestudies of extreme lightning events, researchers were astounded by the sheer power of mother nature that is unleashed far more regularly than previously thought.

So-called ‘superbolts’ were first detected in the 1970s, though they were suspected of only reaching 100 times the standard brightness of the typical lightning strike.

Now, however, using satellite observations, researchers at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory have discovered far more than they bargained for lighting up the Earth’s skies.

“Understanding these extreme events is important because it tells us what lightning is capable of,” says atmospheric scientist Michael Peterson.


One 2018 megaflash stretched some 700 kilometres (440 miles) across the sky. The long-duration lightning burst also lasted nearly 17 seconds.

Peterson and his colleague Erin Lay analyzed two years of data collected by NASA’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper, which records flashes registered by orbital weather satellites every two milliseconds, looking for lightning events that shone 100 times brighter than average.

They discovered roughly two million such events that fit the criteria, or roughly one out of every 300 lightning events, in the 24-month span of their study.

Many of these superbolts cracked with at least 100 gigawatts of power. This staggering display of power is put in context by the fact that, in 2018, all US solar panels and wind turbines combined produced 163 gigawatts of power.

The authors caution, however, that they may actually have missed brighter but shorter flashes, as they only counted strikes that lasted two milliseconds or longer.

“Using total energy to screen for the brightest lightning cases will miss short-duration yet extremely powerful optical pulses,” they write.