50 years ago, the sun’s influence on Earth’s lightning was revealed

Excerpt from the June 22, 1974 issue of Science News

lightning and purple sky over Monument Valley in Arizona

Cyclical bursts of solar radiation seem to enhance lightning strikes on Earth, mounting evidence suggests. But the mechanism remains unclear.

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Cover of Science News' June 22, 1974 issue

Lightning and the sunScience News, June 22, 1974

The latest addition to the growing list of meteorological phenomena which have been linked with solar activity is lightning…. Using data from 1930 to 1973, [a researcher] reports in the May 24 Nature that “in spite of year-to-year variations in the incidence of lightning, there is an underlying cyclic variation with a period of about 11 years which is in phase with the solar cycle.”


Multiple studies have linked upticks in lightning frequency with periodic fluctuations in the sun’s magnetic field. The connection isn’t limited to these 11-year solar cycles. In 2018, scientists confirmed a trend related to one of the sun’s shorter cycles — the 27 days our star takes to rotate around its axis. But how exactly the sun’s activity influences lightning is an enduring mystery. Perhaps the solar wind gives lightning a boost. When this stream of charged particles enters our atmosphere at high speeds, the average number of lightning strikes increases by over 30 percent for more than a month afterward, a 2014 study found.

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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