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Rare severe thunderstorms in Alaska bring over 75,000 lightning strikes near the Arctic Circle

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — An extremely warm and unstable weather pattern brought a rare series of severe, widespread thunderstorms to the Arctic depths of Alaska, lighting up the “Last Frontier” with an extreme number of lightning strikes on Thursday.

Lightning sensors deployed by Vaisala Xweather recorded an electrifying 78,506 lightning strikes over 260 square miles in the northern third of Alaska in 24 hours on Thursday. A lightning strike can occur from cloud to cloud, cloud to air, or cloud to ground—the latter is, of course, the most dangerous.

And there were plenty of them: 12,238 cloud-ground impacts, according to Scott Mackaro of Vaisala Xweather.

How unusual is that? Mackaro says that while interior Alaska does get some thunderstorms in the summer, they usually add up to several hours of lightning per month.

This event appears to be half a month’s worth of lightning in just one day, over several hours, Mackaro said, adding that she is still analyzing the data to find out how rare the event is in Alaska’s climate.

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But these storms were notable not only for the number of lightning strikes, but also for their location.

Some of the storms produced wind gusts of up to 50 mph and hailstone-sized amounts, prompting the NWS in Fairbanks to issue several severe weather warnings for parts of the northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs early Thursday morning.

According to Alaska climate scientist Brian Brettschneider, these were the northernmost and westernmost severe weather warnings ever issued in the United States and its territories. The last of the four warnings issued on Thursday was for 68.37 degrees north and 164.64 degrees west.

Lightning has sparked dozens of wildfires in Alaska this summer. The Bureau of Land Management for Alaska says there are 144 active wildfires burning in the state, including 38 new fires that have broken out since midday Wednesday.

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The McDonald Fire has now burned nearly 120,000 acres of land after a lightning strike ignited the fire on June 8. That and the nearby Clear Fire, which burned another 23,000 acres, have blown smoke into Fairbanks and surrounding areas and worsened air quality. About 20 cabins are still under evacuation orders.

According to the Alaska BLM, 265 fires across the state have burned over 225,000 acres of land so far this year.

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